Kevin Geekie was on his way to becoming a culinary chef when, at 26, a brain tumor changed the course of his life.
After his third surgery, he developed an infection and spent two months in a coma. When he woke up, “everything was different.”
“It was hard to find out that I wouldn’t be able to walk again,” said Geekie, now 38. “And knowing that I wouldn’t be able to cook either was just too much.”
Ultimately, Geekie was diagnosed with ataxia, a dysfunction of the nervous system that coordinates movement and affects vision and speech.
“It took me several years to figure out that I had to go back to living and working again,” he said.
Formerly a skateboarder, Geekie missed being active. So, he joined the St. Louis Spartans rugby wheelchair team. Since the sport is demanding, he had to find a gym where he could build his muscle strength and increase his stamina. It was then that he learned about local nonprofit Paraquad.
Founded in 1970, Paraquad’s mission is to offer resources and opportunities to help people with disabilities increase their independence. A focus is to make St. Louis more accessible for all people by advocating, building awareness and delivering comprehensive services, including access to a fitness center.
Geekie started to work out at Paraquad’s gym in 2010 and he went back to school to earn a degree in social work. He was happy; he saw a future. And a few years later, the seemingly impossible happened. Geekie learned not only about Paraquad’s plan to expand its gym, but also to build a new restaurant, Bloom Café, where people with disabilities would be able to work in the kitchen.
U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corporation (USBCDC), the tax credit division of U.S. Bank, and Paraquad developed a plan to make the project possible.
USBCDC invested $5.6 million in new markets tax credits and made a charitable contribution of $164,000 to complete the expansion of the gym. The new, 22,000-square-foot space is three times the size of the previous gym and includes more than 40 adaptive exercise machines, a mobility skills course and on-site partnerships with Washington University and Logan University.
Paraquad now serves more than 2,500 people a year and an additional 300 have access to the gym’s accessible exercise equipment.
“This project has taught me how much this community still has to fight to obtain their basic rights,” Steve Kramer, senior vice president at USBCDC, said. “Institutions like these are so important to continue to bring more equity and access to people with disabilities.”
Bloom Café is a new social enterprise that offers people with disabilities the opportunity to develop basic skills through its 12-week training program. Students learn about time management, how to interact with customers, and about food safety and preparation. The hope is that students get internships and full-time permanent jobs. The Café, which is open to the public Monday to Saturday, has 22 employees and 15 of them have a disability.
“We are not an organization that does things for people; we are an organization that helps people do things for themselves,” Kevin Condon, director of development and marketing at Paraquad, said.
Even with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is high: 9.2 percent in 2017, more than twice that of those with no disability, 4.2 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Getting that first job is the hardest part, building that resume and those basic skills,” Condon said. “The Café is that first job.”
Geekie works at Bloom almost 20 hours a week chopping vegetables and preparing meals. The kitchen’s adaptive wide spaces and low tables makes it easy for him to move with his wheelchair.
He smiles as he puts on his white apron. He can now picture himself wearing a traditional chef’s uniform. As soon as he graduates with his degree in social work in 2019, he plans to complete the credit hours he needs to obtain his culinary certificate.
“I thought that cooking was an impossible dream, a distant memory, but now this program is making [it] possible,” Geekie said. “I was born to cook.”
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