As the mom of a special needs adult, Jennifer Shiller of Marinette worried about the future. It’s an apprehension shared by other parents. If something happens and neither parent is able to provide care, what will become of their child?
“Every parent of a child with disabilities has the same fears,” she said. “They want to have a safe, loving place where their adult children can grow. As they say, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ and that especially applies to the special needs community.”
It is with this concern that Shiller formed a nonprofit dedicated to her son. A Place for Max obtained 501(c)3 status in 2019, right before the pandemic struck and caused a delay in raising funds for a facility. That also led to the start of a second business, A Place for Coffee, a for-profit business that would donate a portion of its sales to helping fund the nonprofit.
“COVID propelled me into creating a business,” Shiller said. “I took a pulse of this city and realized that the opportunities in this small town were tremendous. I saw that there were coffee shops, but most of those were drive-thru. There weren’t places to just sit and enjoy coffee.”
The next step was finding a location, and with the help of a local real estate agent, she fell in love with a building that had been a former church and was most recently an antiques shop. The building had a warm ambiance and unique character. She purchased it and got to work converting it.
Shiller, who works remotely as a music license researcher for several major film companies, said she spent as many hours as she could on her research work to raise money to get the shop up and running. Some funds were put into a separate business account so that she could pay major expenses without constantly being confronted with bills.
The work coincided with learning how to meet necessary business regulations. For that assistance, she went to SCORE and was assigned a mentor from the Green Bay chapter, Ann Hartnell.
“Without SCORE, I don’t think I could have ever gotten this business off the ground,” Shiller said. “Ann helped me with the taxes, quarterly filings, monthly reports, sales systems, unemployment insurance, and other details step by step. This is the minutia that a lot of people understand, but for me, it was terrifying.”
As she followed the steps, the business took shape. The process of remodeling took longer than expected, but she had help from family. Her son’s dad did woodwork and made a counter; Licensed contractors were hired for electrical and plumbing work. The perfect chairs (antiques in excellent condition) were discovered on Facebook Marketplace where she also looked for used equipment.
But after considering the used items and talking to a friend who owns a coffee shop in California, Shiller decided to buy new ones so that she would have a warranty. That added more to the startup costs than anticipated — the espresso machine alone was $15,000. Once the machine arrived, the next step was learning how to use it.
“I have always loved coffee but I didn’t know how to make any of the specialty coffee drinks,” she said. “I spent three months solid experimenting and coming up with some unique drinks.”
Based on that, she created a menu that includes lattes, cappuccinos, drip coffee, chai tea lattes, loose leaf tea, and prepackaged bakery. There is a wide assortment of syrups to encourage customers to come up with their own creations.
It took more than a year, but she opened in October. A manager, Kelsey Shruck, was hired (she said she was incredibly fortunate to have found an experienced barista who had just moved into the area), and the business is moving forward.
“I am the owner, a barista, a cashier, a maintenance worker,” Shiller said. “There isn’t anything I won’t help with. I am a little scared going into the next few months because I am starting two new movies. Movie clearance is a demanding job, and I fear there will be times when I spend the entire day going back and forth.”
Adding to that will be her continued work on the nonprofit. She recently made an offer on an old school, and if she comes to terms with the seller, the building will require a substantial remodel. Her vision is to convert each large classroom into about three apartments for disabled adults. Other additions will include new bathrooms; a multimedia room for games, movies, and social activities; a gym and a classroom.
“I’d like to house between 10 and 15 residents with enough caregivers to support them,” she said. “Once I have the building, I plan to start raising funds and applying for grants.”
Shiller already has interest from donors and has been raising some money toward her goals. In addition to having a place to live, she also plans to hire adults with special needs in the coffee shop. The first person hired is her son, Max, and he’ll be working part time.
“My son inspires me to do all of this,” she said.
Between a full-time job, nonprofit, and new business, that’s all the incentive she needs. She leans on her strengths and says she is a 360-degree thinker. When there is a problem to be solved, she sees it from top to bottom and charts a course in her head on how to get there. If she has a weakness, it is trying to be in control of everything.
But now, with a qualified manager at the coffee shop, Shiller says she has been able to let go and trust others to do the job. That frees her to focus on the future.
She said, “Eventually, most of my time will be spent on A Place for Max. I want to help parents of children with special needs. When I moved to Marinette from California, the lack of resources here was a real shocker to me. There was also a level of discomfort around these kids and education is going to be very important.”
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.
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