Guest post by Alyssa Stickney, applied speech communication student at Ferris State University

When adults with developmental and cognitive disabilities reach the age of 26, they can no longer attend public schools, leaving the individual and their families unsure of what comes next. That’s where the After 26 Project in Cadillac, Mich. comes into play.

After 26 Depot Café provides adults that have developmental and cognitive disabilities with a place of employment, giving them an opportunity to gain experience in a working environment, interact with the community and discover a sense of purpose.

The nonprofit café opened in June 2013 after spending several years raising money and awareness. With the help of grants, donations and the dedication of board members, the organization raised enough money to renovate a run-down train station from the early 1900’s into a fully-functioning restaurant.

The café offers breakfast and lunch six days per week, as well as a space for banquets, family reunions, wedding receptions and other private functions. Café employees, known as “project workers,” assist in restaurant functions such as bussing tables, washing dishes and assisting customers.

Beyond earning a paycheck and gaining meaningful work experience, the café gives project workers a sense of purpose and connection with their community.

Photo Credit: Dr. David Gaunt, After 26 Depot Café

Photo Credit: Dr. David Gaunt, After 26 Depot Café

“Sheltered workshops provide a very important function, which is to give adults with disabilities a sense of purpose, but they’re sheltered. What that means is, they don’t see anybody else and nobody else sees them,” explains board member Dr. David Gaunt. “The After 26 Project is an entirely different concept. Project workers are very visible to the community and they get a chance to feel like they’re part of the community.”

Project workers had the chance to interact with the community outside the café at After 26 Depot Café’s third annual Depot Music Festival fundraiser on Saturday, Aug. 5 at the Cadillac Rotary Performing Arts Pavilion. The event was sponsored by the DTE Energy Foundation’s Community Giving Program, which supports events that bring people together, spur economic growth and build a community. It plans to fund more than 200 events statewide in the remainder of the year.

Leading up to the event, Gaunt reflected on past years at the Depot Music Festival. “They’ll all be on stage singing ‘I Get by with a Little Help from My Friends,’ which is really the message we’d like to get across. None of this would’ve been possible without the support from the community and foundations like DTE Energy Foundation,” says Gaunt. “The Depot Music fest is not only a fundraiser, but a celebration as well.”

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