William Schejbal can’t wait to make “yummy sandwiches,” and those who know him say they can’t wait to taste them and get a dose of his sunny disposition.
The 22-year-old was all smiles last week at the groundbreaking of Will’s Place, a café and general store expected to open in the spring at 7927 Lincoln Avenue, in downtown Skokie.
Will’s Place will employ adults with developmental disabilities, and Schejbal, who lives in Lincolnwood and has special needs, will work there, too.
The venture is backed by Schejbal’s family, including his mother, Joan Hallagan, and his aunt Cathy Maassen, who plans to retire from the Skokie Public Library when Will’s Place opens.
Schejbal’s cousin, Chicago-based chef Michael Pfeiffer, will create the “chef-driven, ingredient-focused breakfast and lunch menu,” and another cousin will run the cafe. The general store will feature pre-packaged food like sauces, fresh pasta and charcuterie boards, as well as baked goods, fresh flowers, and home goods made locally.
The family has created a nonprofit named Will’s Place and is fundraising via a GoFundMe page.
The space on Lincoln Avenue used to hold Mini Man Monkey Brains, a candy store where people on the autism spectrum could develop occupational skills.
The groundbreaking for Will’s Place on Oct. 25 drew a crowd of relatives, friends, elected officials, and representatives and clients of agencies who serve people with disabilities.
“If there is anything that gives a spark of brightness to the downtown in Skokie, it’s this kind of development,” Skokie Mayor George Van Dusen said.
The village of Skokie is supporting the new business with a commercial corridor storefront enhancement program grant of up to $41,098 for interior and exterior work. The village board approved the grant Oct. 18.
The groundbreaking was also attended by Lincolnwood Mayor Jesal Patel, who said William “had a presence about him” since he was a little boy.
Schejbal, who loves to cook, turned 22 this year, and there just aren’t enough employment options for adults with disabilities, Hallagan said. Will’s Place hopes to employ up to 30 people once business is in full swing, she said.
A total 41.1 million non-institutionalized adults have a disability, representing 12.7% of the population, but only 7.9 million of those ages 18 to 64 were employed, according to the 2019 U.S. Census American Community Survey.
U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky spoke at the event about the need to provide more employment opportunities for adults with special needs, whose public benefits largely end at age 22.
“We need to change the rules of the game. We can’t always rely on not-for-profit organizations,” Schakowsky said. “We have the richest country in the world at the richest point in history, and certainly we can find the funding and the way to make sure that all people can contribute.”
Schejbal, who was homecoming king in 2019 at Niles West High School, was adopted as a baby in Vietnam. Hallagan, his mother, said she later found out that he’d suffered a stroke at birth, caused by malnutrition, that had done neurological damage.
Despite his challenges, Schejbal learned to walk and use alternative means of communication —last week, he used the iPad app TouchChat, which turns typing into spoken words — while making friends wherever he went, his mother said.
“As a parent of a disabled child, I’ve spent years managing my expectations as it became clear that this world isn’t always designed for children like my son,” she wrote on the GoFundMe page. “The joy and love that William has brought into my family and his community is impossible to articulate or measure. My goal is to give back to William the happiness he has given all of us.”
Schejbal never fails to stand out, said Antoinette Cox, a youth mentor/tutor for the nonprofit Marillac St. Vincent Family Services, based in Chicago.
“He’s so sweet and well-mannered,” Cox said. “He’s always helpful, he’s always extending a hand. He is just so jolly and so happy. You’ll never forget him.”