By Tom Holmes
Empowering Gardens Inc. (EGI) is a nonprofit. That doesn't mean that they don't have to make money and balance their books. What it means is that the organization's primary goal is something else.
EGI's website describes the organization's mission this way: "Providing people who have a broad range of disabilities with meaningful, long-term career-oriented employment opportunities in a business growing and creating excellent products for sale at competitive prices in the local market place."
That focus on developing the abilities of their employees, all of whom have disabilities, helps explain why Co-Directors Ana Solares and Richard Biggins recently gathered all seven of their employees around a table in the back of their temporary winter location at 7415 Madison St. to have a cup of coffee and tell stories.
Marissa Grott liked the concept of getting together to tell stories, saying, "These morning coffee hours and conversations give us an opportunity to be together in one space, share stories and really experience one another."
Sitting across the table from Grott, Biggins nodded as if to say, "She gets it." Corporations might conduct story telling experiences with their management as a team building exercise with the goal of improving the bottom line. Solares acknowledged that team building is good for their business but added that their mission is centered on developing their employees' skills so that eventually they will obtain work outside EGI in the marketplace.
"I like to discover the talent each of our employees has," she explained, "and polish it."
Darron Dillard made everyone at the table laugh as recalled how he experienced Christmas as a child. "I used to watch my parents kissin' and huggin' until they saw me out of the corner of their eye and said, 'What are you lookin' at?'" He associated Christmas with getting toys, his father watching football on TV and his grandfather giving him cookies. Everyone groaned when he mentioned eating chitlins for Christmas dinner.
Adam Barron explained how he enjoyed Christmas growing up Jewish. "I used to play Santa Claus when I worked for the park district," he said. "I didn't feel like an outsider because my mom used to go around to the schools and show the similarities—lighting candles, giving gifts and occurring in the winter—between Christmas and Hanukkah."
Elizabeth Hernandez smiled and said, "I get twice as many presents because December 25 is also my birthday."
Ryan Reyes appreciated the fact that his co-workers are willing to share unpleasant experiences associated with the holidays. "It's been nice," he said, "to see how everybody deals with the holidays. They're not perfect as you can see, but we do deal with them. Christmas isn't like it was when we were children when we would take pictures of us with our presents."
Solares told one funny story and another that saddened her even though it happened over 20 years ago. The funny story was about the time when as a little girl she actually stole the baby Jesus from her Catholic church in Guatemala.
The story that brought tears to her eyes also took place in that Central American country. "We were very poor," she began. "No running water or electricity in our house. My mother and father decided that the only way to earn enough money to send me and my siblings to college was for them to leave us in Guatemala and go to the United States and work.
"At the time, I didn't understand the sacrifice my parents were making. All I wanted was to have them back," she explained and added a thought about the holidays not always being perfect, saying, "That's what life is, up and down. My heart goes up and down. When it's a flat line it means you are dead, so as long as it goes up and down, you are OK."