Ada Krasinsky, left, and Jani Westcott, both of Oak Park, go shopping for plants on Friday, July 2, 2021, at the Empowering Gardens flower sale shop on Madison Street in Forest Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

Ana Solares and Richard Biggins had the vision of building a permanent greenhouse and gift shop on the land they were renting at 7730 Madison St. even before they opened Empowering Gardens on April 23, 2016.

Their nonprofit corporation employs only “people who have a broad range of disabilities.”

Six years into the venture and Empowering Gardens has saved up $100,000 and decided to take the next big step toward making that dream a reality.  The nonprofit has a contract with Charlie Barbari, who owns the property and from whom they have been renting for six years. In addition to the $100,000, the nonprofit has secured $65,000 in pledges and donations toward the purchase price which is set at $400,000.

What remains is a whopping $235,000, a huge financial burden for a small entity. The urgency, according to Solares and Biggins, is to raise as much money in the month of March to make the down payment through donations and pledges as large as possible and therefore the loan it has applied for at Forest Park Bank as small as possible.

Everyone at Empowering Gardens is sprinting toward the fund-raising finish line this month.  

Buying the land is important, said Solares, because to qualify for the grants which they need to build their dream facility they need to own the property on which they want to build. No grants are available for the land itself, they said.

The two nonprofit leaders are used to dreaming big and taking small steps each day toward reaching the goal.  “We were taking a risk,” said Biggins. “We were fully aware that 45% of new businesses fail within the first five years of their existence.”

Solares explained why the two decided to take the risk by saying, “Sometimes you see that something needs to be done, but out of fear you hesitate.  Sometimes you have to just jump in and do it.”

Visions can be empowering but positive signs along the road are also encouraging.  “We’ve developed a great deal of faith and trust in the people of Forest Park and the surrounding communities,” said Biggins, “because each year they support us more, we get better volunteers, more customers walk in the door and we get bigger donations.

“Another thing which is motivating is our staff, “ said Solares, “Because when you see our employees with disabilities come to work, they put their music on and they sing while they work. They build relationships and friendships here, and they have improved in their lives in many ways.” 

“There have been many encouraging signs along the way which have been extremely gratifying,” said Biggins.  “On those days when we are exhausted those signs kind of soothe your soul,”

The six year journey has had many detours and bumps in the road.  The property at 7730 has no building, which worked fine as a garden center during the months with warm weather, but during the winter months, it was the generosity of property owners — like Art Sundry, Tony Aiello, and Jack Strand, who own the building which is currently housing Empower Gardens until April 30 — which provided space for the nonprofit.

Two years ago, the co-owners had to make a major detour.  When no space became available for the winter, Solares and Biggins actually rented three shipping containers at $1,500 per month to provide office space and a sales room for house plants.  Biggins laughed when he said the space they are using now at 7736 even has two heated bathrooms — much better than the porta-potties they had to use during that shipping container winter.

“We don’t give up easily,” said Solares.