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Special needs adults find jobs, creative outlets

On a rainy Tuesday morning before the Soul Cafe lunch rush, David Kole is meticulously setting silverware and arranging linen napkins, while his friend Ben Nadis carries dishes into the kitchen.

Feet away, in the attached Soul Studio, Lindsey Pringle’s painting a cartoon duck as Elyse Weinbaum sews purses, Devorah Newman weaves a scarf and Alex McDonald cuts cardboard for a giant paper mache train.

The 11 adults keeping customers happy in the cafe and 50 more creating masterpieces in the studio might have autism, Down syndrome, social anxiety or cognitive challenges, but at the West Bloomfield Farber Soul Center that opened in May, they’re simply servers, cooks and artists — and they’re all getting paid.

The vision for this 18,000-square-foot space where adults with special needs can find employment and express their creativity was spun by Bassie Shemtov, co-founder of The Friendship Circle, a nonprofit that has supported over 3,500 Metro Detroit families of children with special needs. When Shemtov and her husband, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, organized the volunteer-driven educational and social activities in 1994, most of the kids were 6 to 8 years old. Today, those kids are in their 20s and have aged out of the programming.

“Parents started calling and crying and freaking out that their kids are at home, they’re depressed, eating, watching movies,” says Shemtov, 44, a mother of five. “We first said, ‘We’re focused on children, that’s it.’ But at a certain point you can’t close your eyes.”

Standing in the white gallery, popping with a larger-than-life pink flamingo, laser-cut multicolored elephant and newspaper collage featuring Detroit’s Guardian Building that sold for $695, Shemtov says the idea for the cafe came easy, as people with special needs have long worked in the restaurant industry. But they pondered what to do with the 15,000-foot space behind the cafe, all purchased with a $2.4 million donation from the Farber family. Then someone suggested an art space where adults with special needs could sell their work.

“To be honest, I thought it would be like arts and crafts. I didn’t really believe they could do real stuff,” Shemtov says.

But then she toured similar studios in California, Boston and Chicago.

“I was blown away. People with special needs are crazy talented, and I just didn’t even know.”

A canvas of possibilities

Bonnie Laker of Birmingham is one of 90 adult volunteers with art backgrounds who work with the artists in the studio open three days a week. In Laker’s case, she’s the hands for Weinbaum, 37, who has a neurological condition that affects movement and sometimes impedes her from sewing. But Weinbaum — who has a degree in fashion merchandising and design and used to be a personal shopper for Detroit Pistons players — picks all the fabrics for her own purses, which sell in the gallery instantly.

“They’re artists that are making money. And there’s artists out in the world that never get a penny,” says Laker, showing off a purse made with khaki pants.

“She has the vision, and because I have a fashion background, I think I understand what she’s trying to do,” Laker says. “ I try to help her avoid being frustrated when she can’t do what she wants to.”

When new artists enter the program, staff artists Adam LaVoy and Brian Kavanaugh explore their interests and observe their natural tendencies.

Kavanaugh, 33, who has an Master of Fine Arts degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art, gives the example of Rena Cohen, a nonverbal 22-year-old who colors with wide sweeping strokes.

“Once I saw that, I saw it would be useless to try to get her to an 8 1/2-by-11-inch piece of paper because she can’t make those movements smaller. So I just gave her larger and larger pieces of paper,” Kavanaugh says, pointing to her giant pictures on the wall, each with a purple valley, orange sky and rainbow of hues in between. “You can see the consistency of the composition and colors. That’s always a big moment for me ... when somebody is making very particular choices about what they’re doing.”

Showing off Cohen’s pastel side table that sold for $350, Shemtov says it’s sometimes difficult to convince parents their child has talent.

“It’s hard for a mom to believe when for 20-some years she just thought her child has Down syndrome and that’s it, she can’t do much,” Shemtov says. “And all the sudden, she’s someone who people want her work.”

LaVoy, 34, who previously worked in a California art studio for adults with disabilities, says all he does is imbue techniques other artists learn in school. But these artists have an advantage over students at the top academies.

“They’re coming in with an uninhibited ability and willingness to create without the things that get in the way in a typical art education — like ego, fear or concern for what other people are going to think,” he says.

That couldn’t be more true for 21-year-old Lea Pollack.

“The first thing about me that you should know is that I’m a nerd,” he says, standing before his poster peppered with “nerdy” symbols from Pokemon, Star Trek and Nintendo. “I worked really hard on this piece, and I really feel like it’s a lot who I am.”

Sold for $600, it must have resonated with another “nerd.”

Spending six days a week between the cafe and studio, the Oak Park resident says he “practically lives in the building.” The best part, he says, is learning from the professional artists and his new friends.

“You see people who you might think, just by looking at them, might not be able to do much of anything,” he says. “Some of the people who might have really prominent disabilities, they still are able to create beautiful pieces of art, which really speak to me.”

Cooking up skills

“In kitchens, there’s always that aura of the chefs are all angry. It’s not like that here,” says sous chef Katie Nelson, who operates Soul Cafe’s kosher dairy kitchen with head chef Hunny Khodorkovsky.

About 15 employees hired by Epicurean Catering and Events work alongside the special needs staff, trained by The Friendship Circle’s Kim Kaplan. Whether they’re bussing tables or assisting chefs, the staff with special needs — who get paid minimum wage — are expected to perform as best as they can.

Grilling peppers for a salsa, chef Kasean Barber explains his rules: “I expect for you to finish the task I asked you to do in the allotted amount of time and for it to be a good product when you’re finished. You don’t have to do it in 5 minutes. Take 10 and make it right.”

A former Sterling Heights retirement community chef, Barber teaches his “students” how to mise out ingredients and cook items like French fries (Pollack’s speciality). The biggest challenge, he says, is conveying they’re all “in this together.”

“They have their own preconceived notions of how people view them already based on past experiences in their lives,” he says. “So I try to break that by showing them kindness and love but also being stern — that this is business.”

After the lunch crowd died down, Nadis met with Kaplan and his father in the rentable banquet hall for a review. On the checklist, Kaplan points out he needs to work on listening better, but she praises the 24-year-old for working toward his goal of assisting the barista at the cafe’s Starbucks counter.

His father, Ronn Nadis of Farmington Hills, says the long-term goal is for his son to pick up skills he can take elsewhere.

“This isn’t the final stop. This is the stepping stone,” he says. “Learning how to be an employee, that’s for some people the toughest part — how to show up on time, how to interact with the staff. And those things apply in any job.”

For many, it’s not so much about earning money; it’s about growing.

Watching Kole, 22, confidently set a table, Shemtov comments he’s come a long way from five months ago when his body language betrayed his insecurities. “He now knows exactly what he’s doing,” she says.

The West Bloomfield resident also has several commissions for laser-cut chess sets he makes in the studio on Tuesdays. On other days, he’s taking carry-out orders and busing dishes. Like any employee, the experience is all part of his plan to move up in the world.

“I hope someday I’ll work in another restaurant,” he says, “and then I’ll go from there.”

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