New Workplace Training Program Draws National Attention


8-9 Jean Kroll, owner of ILOVESWEETS commercial bakery in Evanston, had a dilemma; she was in talks with a client whose baked goods needed very labor-intensive packaging, but she couldn’t justify the significant capital outlay necessary to automate a brand new process.  Jean decided to reach out to Have Dreams, located just down the street from her bakery.  Several young adults from Have Dreams were already helping Jean build and label boxes for her signature shortbread cookies.  Why not have them perform the labor-intensive work required?

Together, Jean and Have Dreams developed a 10-week training program providing three young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) an opportunity to learn the ins and outs of working in food manufacturing.  The trainees would also increase their future job prospects by gaining independence, developing their problem-solving, teamwork and leadership abilities, and broadening their social and communication skills.

In the summer of 2014, with a $125,000 grant from The Coleman Foundation, Have Dreams Academy launched its new manufacturing program at ILOVESWEETS.  The foundation funded an intern from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management to track and analyze the trainees’ job performance.  If they performed well, a case could be made to encourage other employers to hire students from the Academy.

At the end of the program session, the data collected showed that hiring workers with ASD made good business sense.  Jean hired two of the trainees into part-time, entry-level positions, which allowed the bakery’s more experienced, higher-paid staff to work on other tasks.  The trainees showed a strong desire to work and have become valuable members of the bakery staff.  In January 2015, the Have Dreams Academy at ILOVESWEETS began its 10-week winter quarter training program with two new trainees.

“We need to help business owners understand, like Jean does, that there is an economic benefit to employing this population. This is not just a feel-good story,” says Clark McCain, Senior Program Officer at The Coleman Foundation.  “Think of how many manufacturers there are in Chicago who have some discreet, repetitive tasks that need to be done and that might be well-suited to the folks at Have Dreams.”

The innovative partnership between Have Dreams and ILOVESWEETS quickly drew the attention of local news sources when ABC7’s Eyewitness News, NBC 5 Chicago, the Chicago Tribune and the Daily Herald ran stories featuring the trainees’ successful work in the bakery.  The Associated Press picked up the story, which was carried in news outlets across the country including the Autism Speaks website and The Dallas Morning News.

The positive press placed a well-deserved spotlight on Have Dreams and its pioneering workplace programs.  Have Dreams Academy, which also has a retail collaboration with Walgreens, has a 75 percent job placement rate among its graduates.  Researchers who study autism in the workplace have taken notice and are requesting visits to learn more about the Academy, which is proving not only successful for its graduates, but for employers like ILOVESWEETS as well.