Manuel “Manny” Gutierrez’s story is a good example of how it takes a village to not only raise a child, but also to support people with disabilities. 

Gutierrez was in a coma for two years following a car accident in 2003, which left him with short-term memory loss, seizures that resulted in violent muscle contractions and the loss of consciousness, and the loss of peripheral vision in one eye. The front of his skull was so damaged that now a ceramic plate replaces the original bone.

He was 20-years-old when a semi-truck pushed him into a ditch along Interstate 64 in Kentucky. After being hospitalized for three years, he “graduated” to years of physical and occupational therapy.

As you can imagine, the crash had a devastating impact on him. In addition to his permanent physical disabilities, his agonizingly slow recovery led to the breakup of his marriage. He lost the custody of his children because of his seizures. But there was also a loss of self-respect. Without work he was unable to contribute financially to the raising of his three sons.  

He recalled, “When I was going through recovery from my accident I felt completely useless. I would think ‘What am I here for if I’m not helpful with anything,”

That began to change when Gutierrez moved back to this area from Kentucky and was hired by a Forest Park non-profit called Empowering Gardens Inc. (EGI), a garden center open at 7730 Madison St. from April to November. Empowering Garden’s goal is to provide people with a broad range of disabilities meaningful, long-term employment, “creating excellent products for sale at competitive prices in the local marketplace,” according to its website. 

Ana Solares, co-director of Empowering Gardens, said that all six paid employees now working for the nonprofit are people with disabilities of one kind or another.

“We hire and train them in whatever direction they want to go,” she said. “The idea is to discover what abilities each individual employee has, enhance those abilities and prepare our employees for work outside of our non-profit.”

Richard Biggins, the other co-director, explained that this approach requires a lot of time.  He said that businesses like Jewel, which hire people with disabilities, create job descriptions and then hire people who can fit in that particular box. But “what we do here is design a new box for each employee and help them find work that fits their abilities and interests,” he said. 

Gutierrez is grateful for the income he receives from working at Empowering Gardens on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, which supplements the monthly disability check he receives from the federal government. The problem which Empowering Gardens and, therefore Gutierrez, faced last year was that, because the nonprofit lacked an all-weather greenhouse facility, Empowering Gardens would have to cease operating between November and April and therefore temporarily lay off all its employees.

That was until Art Sundry, who owns caffe De Luca, allowed Empowering Gardens to operate their business out of space on Madison Street last year, which he owned and was vacant at the time. This year Tony Aiello, who owns the building at 7316 Madison Street, where Yearbook used to do business, is doing the same. All Empowering Gardens pays for is electricity. So, Gutierrez is able to maintain that source of income year round.

Mike Sullivan also recently hired Manny to work one day a week at Goldyburgers Restaurant, which he owns.  

Thus, with a little help from his friends, if you will, Gutierrez has found self-respect, knows the dignity of holding down a job and is able to contribute to the raising of his three sons.

“[Manny’s story] is representative of the way we’ve been embraced and welcomed by this community,” Biggins said. “From the village government to our customers to the donors who help fund our work, everyone has been really supportive.”

For Solares and Biggins, Gutierrez holds a special place in their hearts. “Recently, Manny became our first employee to land a job in our local community when he began working at Goldyburgers Restaurant in Forest Park.  Manny has come a long way from the day he was in the car accident. He is now a responsible and hardworking father,” they wrote in an email. 

The two Empowering Gardens directors also feel like they are contributing to the quality of life in Forest Park. Biggins said that the lot at 7730 Madison St. had been empty for over 10 years when they arrived on the scene and began preparing to open their garden center there. 

“It had become a source of problems,” he said. “People were in there using drugs. We filled a 20 yard dumpster with unbelievable crap so we could do business. I think the community is happy we are doing the kind of business we are doing.”

Solares and Biggins have big dreams for the future of Empowering Gardens. They want to build an all-weather green house on the 7730 Madison St. site, so they can operate their business year round from one address. They want to become part of the locally sourced food movement that is growing in this country and picture themselves supplying spices and vegetables to local restaurants. 

The directors and friends of EGI spend a lot of time raising money to fund their 501C3, partly because they resist accepting grants from the government.  

 “Government funding, particularly in Illinois, is extremely unreliable,” Biggins said. 

That of course is a reality that every taxing body in Forest Park has had to work around recently, but the directors of the nonprofit also believe that money from the government always has strings attached. 

“The government also tends to try to direct your program,” Biggins said. “They have their goals and the numbers they want to reach, so not taking government money gives us the freedom to create as we go. but that also means that we are constantly raising money.”

Solares added: “Eventually we want to be self-sustainable. It might never be 100-percent, but close. Also, when we raise enough funds to have a year-round greenhouse, we won’t have to move during the cold weather.”

Empowering Garden’s winter location this year is 7316 Madison St. Customers who drop in between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, will be able to shop for poinsettias, house plants, cacti, herbs, Christmas greens, handmade ornaments and art by local artists.

Solares explained that what often happens when children are diagnosed as having a disability is that they get segregated from society by being kept at home or sent to live in an institution. What they are doing at Empowering Gardens, she says, is discovering and enhancing the abilities of their employees so they can function better in society and the community can accept them as legitimate members of that society.

Our goal is to “expose people with disabilities to the public and the public to people with disabilities,” Solares said.   

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