When Gov. Pritzker ordered the shutdown in mid-March, Richard Biggins, one of the co-directors of Empowering Gardens, recalled that he and Ana Solares, the other co-director of the nonprofit that employs people with developmental disabilities, were at a loss regarding what to do and whether they would even survive.
“The problems,” said Biggins, “seemed insurmountable.” Garden centers, Solares explained, have to order their flowers for the next spring in August, so there she and Biggins were, stuck with thousands of plants arriving at their 7730 Madison St. location soon and with no way to sell them, at least not like they had been since opening in April of 2016.
What happened next is one more story of the COVID crisis bringing out the best in Forest Parkers. It certainly brought out the best in Solares and Biggins.
“It was challenging,” Solares explained, “because we had all these plants coming in, but we weren’t able at that time to have any employees on site. In April, Richard and I were the only ones running the business.”
So they learned to do business online. Solares took the orders and Biggins delivered. Taking orders alone was a challenge. “Customers would call,” Biggins recalled, “asking for a bunch of those ‘red flowers.’ The problem is there are 2,000 different kinds of red flowers, so because customers could not come in and point to what they wanted, Ana had to engage in long conversations to determine what exactly it was that they wanted.
“I sometimes would have to load my pick up with big bales of mulch and then unload them at the customer’s residence. I got in pretty good shape.”
For those who wanted to pick up their purchases at curbside, the co-directors developed CDC-compliant guidelines by which the transfer could be made without anyone coming in physical contact.
And when using a vacant storefront for a winter space was no longer possible, Solares and Biggins came up with the creative idea of using shipping containers to house their business during the holiday season, which begins this month.
One trailer will serve as their office. One will be for their inventory of house plants and the third will be for storage. In a week or so, customers will be able to go online to www.empoweringgardensinc.org, to make an order from their stock of items specially designed for Thanksgiving and, after Nov. 26, for Christmas
The crisis brought out the best in their customers.
“Customers were very patient with us,” Solares began. “Because so many people were into gardening while sheltering in place, we often ran out of stock, especially vegetables and herbs. Sometimes they had to stand in line for an hour or more, just to wait their turn.”
The crisis brought out the best in a variety of ways.
“We had half a dozen wonderful volunteers,” said Biggins. “Even after we were named an essential business, we had a smaller staff working less hours. The volunteers kind of saved our business.”
The crisis brought out the best in the business community, too.
During the cold snap last May, Exit Strategy and Famous Liquors, which lets Empowering Gardens use their parking lot, offered to store plants during the nights when the temperature outside plunged below freezing. The volunteers rolled the racks of plants inside in both the rain and snow.
“If it weren’t for our customers, local business people, and our volunteers,” said Solares, “we would have been out of business.”
When people ask the co-directors how they keep things going in the midst of uncertainty — renting the land they use and the trailers, working with employees with developmental disabilities, and not knowing what the next year will bring — they said they believe in their mission and so do their customers, volunteers and the business community who support them. They trust each other and the community, and they see the lives of their employees changed.
The mission of the nonprofit is “to provide people who have a broad range of disabilities meaningful, long-term, career-oriented employment opportunities in a business growing and creating excellent products.”
Customers and friends can support Empowering Gardens by participating in an opportunity called Giving Tuesday. This year, a flyer explains, the Coleman Foundation is matching gifts made to support their mission. Donate online or by check from Nov. 1 to Dec. 1.
Make online donations by going to their website or mail checks payable to Empowering Gardens before Dec. 1 to P.O. Box 2161, Oak Park, IL 60303.