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Photo by David Colburn
Employees at A Quick Bite (from left) Angel Wagner, Bryan Jones and Lisa Sumpter take the time to pose alongside Challenge Unlimited Employee Facilitator Janet Gentry for a photograph just before lunchtime.
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A Quick Bite employee Bryan Jones works the cash register on a Thursday morning in the Madison County Administration Building. With 11 years of previous experience through the Alton cafeteria at Challenges Unlimited, Employment Facilitator Janet Gentry boasts that Jones was the first person considered for the job when A Quick Bite officially opened in mid-July.
EDWARDSVILLE — It’s important for the public to recognize everyone has something to add to the community.
One local organization has stepped up to meeting that challenge with enthusiasm. Challenge Unlimited began in 1959 as an Alton shelter workshop known as Specialized Services and has since expanded with multiple government contracts, several rest stops in Illinois and even locations in Wisconsin. Its mission statement is evident in the tales of each person the nonprofit helps employ: “to provide work-related opportunities to individuals with disabilities, which enable them to achieve their highest level of independence.”
A Quick Bite — the organization’s newest venture in the Madison County Administration Building, 157 N. Main Street — opened its doors in mid-July and has been met with a positive response, Challenge Unlimited Employment Facilitator Janet Gentry said.
“We were offered a deal by the county to provide on-site food services to employees, and it’s really been a perfect fit for our mission,” Gentry said.
The restaurant strives to provide much-needed convenience to its patrons.
“We work to have each customer in and out in five minutes with their lunch in hand,” Gentry said.
A Quick Bite caters to many tastes, offering menu items such as ham sandwiches, turkey and Swiss, nachos, hot dogs, baked potatoes, salads and Starbucks coffee.
“We’ve also started providing punch cards with buy-ten-get-one-free options and individuals in Alton provide us with baked goods on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” she said.
How does Challenge Unlimited operate?
“At first, we’re referred individuals through one of several different agencies like the Developmental Disabilities Services of Metro East, its residential provider, and Division of Rehabilitation Services, Illinois Department of Human Services, and it’s determined whether or not they qualify for government funding,” Gentry said. “From there, they work through the city and we try to find work suitable to their abilities and teach skills along the way: our goal is to let each individual be as independent as possible.”
Independence is important to Gentry.
“I’ve worked with the disabled my entire adult life, and to see them grow, have pride in the work they do, and independently transport themselves to and from their job is great for their self-worth,” she said. “It’s a very exciting time in the mental health field; the original approach was to isolate disabled individuals from the community at large and it’s only recently that we’ve started to actively involve those individuals as part of the community.”
In her 25 years of service in the mental health field, Gentry said she has witnessed impressive transformations, including a guest to an Alton workshop with severe social anxiety and self-harming tendencies.
“Through our employment program, she’s learned to function very well and move toward independence working in food service in Alton,” she said.
Another shining example of transformation is found in A Quick Bite employee Bryan Jones. He was the first person considered to work at the restaurant and takes pride in his position — which includes such responsibilities as front cashier, dish-washing and custodial duties.
“The paycheck’s good money and I feel safe here,” he said.
“Bryan’s progressing so fast that he’s training others now and learning more management skills,” Gentry said. “He says that one of his long-term goals is to one day ‘be a boss.’
“We’re about to expand our menu to include hot breakfast items, and for the moment we’re taking suggestions and making changes along to the way to cater to the needs of our customers. We’ve had inquiries for other Madison County sites and we’re definitely looking at future expansion, with Bryan training new employees.”
The organization, 4 Emmie L. Kaus Lane in Alton, recently bid on four new janitorial contracts and has expanded production in Alton within the last year.
For information, visit cuinc.org or facebook.com/ChallengeUnlimitedIncAbilityOneProvider/.