By TOM HOLMES and THERESA MAROUSEK
Football coaches plan plays for the offense and hope their players execute it just like they drew it up. Kevin Bonner recently scored a “touchdown” for Ana Solares and Richard Biggins, his coaches at Empowering Gardens, when he got a job with Whole Foods Market in River Forest.
Bonner, you could say, graduated “cum laude” from Empowering Gardens this spring, translating what he learned at the nonprofit into his new job.
When Solares and Biggins opened their nonprofit on April 23, 2016, they had a game plan — providing people who have a broad range of disabilities with meaningful, long-term, career-oriented employment opportunities. The goal was to provide transitional employment experience, training, and placement for their employees, “empowering each individual to develop, realize, and apply their skills in positions of competitive employment.”
Bonner executed the game plan perfectly. An exemplary student, he was rewarded for his hard work with a job. A year after being hired at Empowering Gardens, he landed a cashier job at the fast-paced Whole Foods store in River Forest.
Diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy when he was just 4, he came to Empowering Gardens 18 years later, and Solares and Biggins saw his abilities. When they introduced him a year ago on their website, they described him with adjectives like “kind,” “bright” and “curious.”
Like the plants in his care, the new employee flourished in his new environment. “The nursery job,” he said, “opened up my eyes to possibilities and goals I can set for myself.
“Ana and Richard are my idols,” said the 23-year-old. “They taught me discipline and encouraged me to focus on my goals while surrounding me with kindness. I gained a sense of purpose that motivated me to push forward and grow as a person. I will be eternally grateful for their mission and the way they treat people. I feel it is now a part of who I am and try to spread that vibe to others everywhere I go.”
Empowering Gardens seems to attract a clientele that “gets” the nonprofit’s mission and supportively participate in implementing it. Bonner, for example, admits he was once anxious about talking to people, but the positive energy of the nursery’s customers helped him open up. He also became comfortable handling money and learning skills he is using in his new job.
“We couldn’t be happier for Kevin in his new position,” said Biggins. “It’s been exciting for us to see him overcome obstacles and flourish as a person.”
Bonner continues as a volunteer at Empowering Gardens. He has developed a fondness for plants, filling his room at home with his favorites and naming each one.
According to his online intro, Bonner is “a former boy scout who has studied education, and enjoys playing chess and engaging in philosophical discussions. He has also taught chess to young students at several Oak Park schools. He likes travel and loves dogs; particularly his own dog, Sir Remington. He is open-minded about food and will try almost anything once. Kevin enjoys taking care of houseplants and learning about various types of plants and how to care for them. He loves the energy he feels being around plants and dogs and hopes to one day open his own business growing and selling plants.”
“We are very happy Kevin will still be around,” said Solares. “He is very kind, very likeable, gets along with all employees and customers really like him.”