Any regular at the Kankakee Farmers’ Market is sure to recognize the smiling teens selling cotton candy with flavors ranging from strawberry cheesecake to pickle. But did you know that these teen workers are as varied and individual as the flavors they sell? Sweet Connections, a local non-profit, is working to end the prejudice atypical teens face in employment world. Started by two Kankakee special education teachers, the dream for Sweet Connections came while discussing the employment roadblocks their students face after graduation. “A lot of our students…we are seeing them on Warrant Wednesday. They are not doing much with their life after high school and we felt like there has to be something else that we can be doing,” said Jana Sheely, who teaches in the transition program for the Kankakee school district. In an effort to close this gap, Sheely, along with fellow teacher Emily McMullin, opened Sweet Connections, a candy stand that offers flavored cotton candy and nostalgia candy. Sweet Connections pairs together non-disabled and disabled teens to learn job-related skills to prepare them for employment in adulthood.
Why a candy store? “Because candy makes everybody happy,” said Sheely with a smile. One of the students’ first job is to hand out free suckers to children at the markets. The free suckers serve two purposes. It is a way for students to gently start interacting with the public. “[They need] on the job training because we are finding a job at McDonald’s might not work for them because it is too fast paced [to start with].” As for the public, Sheely explains, “It might be a kid’s first experience with a disabled person. We want them to not be afraid. Little kids, especially, might look at them and see a kid in a wheelchair and not know what to do. But, getting candy, okay, you know this is going to be a good experience. It makes them (the teen employees) visible.
One aspect of Sweet Connections’ mission is to build connections to the community and to make employers not afraid to take on these students. Said Sheely, “We discussed at great length that a lot of the kids is our district, they don’t physically look like they have a disability, so they really fall through the cracks [with employers].” Sweet Connections is “trying to install that just because you have a strength in one area doesn’t mean you don’t in another. What do you see in your life? What do you want to do after high school?” These are the questions Sheely and McMullin ask their student employees to consider when developing their goals for after high school. “We tell them, there is a life out there after high school.”
“We can work hand in hand with them and give them the vocational skills to work with people that do not have a disability,” said Sheely. The disabled students learn skills that non-disabled people may take for granted, such as interacting with the public and customer service, cash handling, sales, time management, and even banking. The non-disabled students also benefit from the partnership. “That person is also learning the empathy side of working with someone that does have a special need,” said Sheely. At Sweet Connections students build a record of work experience and references. “A student was even offered a job on the spot,” said Sheely, as she explained how students go on to other jobs after their time with Sweet Connections.
One of the local teen employees is 17-year-old Abbi Chinski, a student at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School. Before Chinski got her license, she needed a job with flexibility to save for expenses for when she started driving. She first heard about Sweet Connections from another student and her mom. “Abbi is our sunshine on our darkest day,” said Sheely about the perky and professional teen.
Chinski gives out samples of cotton candy and provides customer service for Sweet Connections. Her partner is Grace Stark, another BBCHS student, who does the cash handling and also provides customer service. Chinski is quick to acknowledge that the only difference between the two girls is that Grace requires the use of wheelchair. “I give out samples and guide them to Grace. I’ve learned how people perceive Grace. I see people handing me the money when I have gloves on. Does that make sense to you? Why would you not hand it to her? I’m just learning more about the world, I guess.”
Since her start at Sweet Connections Chinski has gone on to work other jobs in the community. However, she still remains at Sweet Connections part-time. “We have fun when we work together,” said Chinski. “I like that we are like a little family…and we learn from each other.” Chinski also volunteers with Easterseals and plans on becoming a Speech Pathologist. On the skills she’s learned at Sweet Connection, “I think it has absolutely helped me with interviews. I can say I’ve worked with people who have taught me things. She (Stark) has taught me how to sell things.” Chinski continues to explain how working for Sweet Connections has helped build her confidence in a work setting. She’s comfortable and confident in talking and working alongside different types of people, including typical and atypical co-workers, customers, and managers.
Having an atypical co-worker, however, has opened her eyes to microaggressions that happen to disabled people on a daily basis. “I hate the idea that anyone can go through what I’ve witnessed. “Like the little brush offs that they will do with Grace. They see her. You have to see her. She’s there. And then ignore her and zone in on me. I don’t understand it. I hate to think about the little kids I’m watching at Easterseals grow up and deal with that as well. “I’m learning about advocacy when working with Grace.”
Sweet Connections wants to lessen the divide between the typical and atypical students and show they can work side by side. Integration is the goal. “We are co-teaching in the classrooms now,” said Sheely and explained how the employment world needs to catch up. “There is a discrepancy with pay. We emphasize you both are doing the same job and both are going to get paid the same rate. We contract them so we are able to pay at the same rates. If we went through true employment and social security there would be a discrepancy with pay. I understand because of services from the government why they are paid differently, but it doesn’t make it right.” For the students that are able, Sheely believes working is a better solution for motivation and developing self-esteem than staying home and only recieving government benefits.
“I love that Sweet Connections is doing this to provide opportunities for typical and atypical kids who can shape themselves as contributing members of our society,” adds Abbi Chinski. “It gives kids a purpose.”
“You feel bad when you tell people, especially in our age group (adults), that one [worker] has a disability and the other one doesn’t. They [Chinski’s generation] are in this generation where it is typical and atypical” said Sheely, when describing the differences of perception between a lot of adults and students coming of age today. “We are trying to change the language, too.” Adds Chinski, “I think what Sweet Connections is doing is important because it is providing a message to those who don’t understand it. “You’re teaching our community.”
For Sweet Connections, part of the work is to change how businesses hire and provide benefits. “This could be something that could be a model for other businesses in the future,” said Sheely. “How can we give therapy on the job and work through this issue? Even for non-disabled people it is not always a good day at work,” she explains when discussing how to make businesses more friendly to the atypical population. “How do we look at job placement a bit differently? [At Sweet Connections, by paring employees with] a partner there is no job shadowing necessarily. There is just good cultivating of finding whose skills work in what position.”
Sweet Connections also keeps their teen workers local, which Sheely and McMullin feel is important to build bridges to the community. “We are organic. If we go to Momence, I have a student from Momence that works out there. Manteno, I have Manteno.”
Sheely and McMullin also feel strongly about giving back to the community. At their booths in the markets, Sweet Connection sells lemonade by donations. “Canteen for a Cause is our way of giving back to the community with others who work with the disabled. It’s a partnership message,” said Sheely. Sweet Connections also offers scholarships for Kankakee County students studying special education or anyone that will be a service provider for the disabled, including occupational physical therapy, physical therapy, speech pathology, psychology, and sociology through a 1k non-competitive family friendly fundraiser race in the fall.
Sheely said future plans for Sweet Connections include a physical store. “Right now we are known as the cotton candy place.” Sweet Connections would eventually like to develop a family friendly community space with sweet treats that include more than cotton candy. Sheely envisions a store with games, slushies, and more candy options- a place where the typical and atypical can mix as easily as their best-selling cotton candy flavors.
For now, you can find Sweet Connections every Saturday at the Kankakee Farmers’ Market, local pop ups and fairs. To find out where Sweet Connections will be next, follow them on Facebook. Can’t wait to get your favorite flavor of cotton candy? Stop by Bargains and Treasures, 396 Kennedy Dr., Bradley, where Sweet Connections has a permanent candy stand.
For teens interested in employment opportunities, Sweet Connections accepts resumes through Facebook