Across the Bridge offers students a pathway to independence

Store offering a lab experience for District 156 students set to open Oct. 6

Clients and instructors at McHenry High School District 156 put together shelving for Across the Bridge, 1774 N. Richmond Road, McHenry, on Monday, Sept. 25, 2023. The storefront will give the clients practice in selling in a retail store environment.

Once Across the Bridge opens to the public in McHenry next month, the new store could open doors for the young people staffing it.

The home decor store offers handmade products such as seasonal silk flower arrangements, homemade candles, bath salts and soaps. Unlike a typical home decor store, its products are made by the 19 young men and women in the McHenry High School District 156 BRIDGES program.

“As a group, they will make products to sell in the store and then work in the store,” program instructor Kelly Shaver said.

BRIDGES is an acronym for Building Responsibility, Increased independence, Decision making, Growth, Engagement, and Self-advocacy.

Clients ages 18 to 22 who already have graduated from high school learn life skills, including how to prepare meals, how to clean their homes, how to do laundry and how to make a budget.

This is a way for them to get experience to become independent adults and, hopefully, people see that and hire them.”

—  Kelly Shaver, BRIDGES program instructor

For the past four years, the program rented two houses in McHenry to give the young people a place to practice those skills, including cooking for themselves, doing laundry and conducting general independence.

Those leases ended at the end of the 2022-23 school year. Now, the instructors decided to rent the McHenry Plaza Shopping Center storefront at 1774 N. Richmond Road, program instructor Rob Ridley said.

“People can look around and see what [the clients] are doing” in the store, Ridley said. “We are selling them on their service.”

One of those students is 18-year-old Ricky Ramirez.

He said “it makes me feel proud” to see the Thanksgiving hanging plaque he designed now sitting on one of the display tables. “People will have it in their house, and it will be pretty.”

He has a day job, too, bagging groceries.

However, in BRIDGES, “I’m learning to keep track of money, make friends and have living experience,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez also suggested the store name.

Brandan Komers helped shelve the home decor items he and others made on Monday, Sept.25, 2023, at Across the Bridge, McHenry. The store offers clients of the McHenry Community High School District 156 BRIDGES program the opportunity to learn how to work in a retail environment.

“It signifies the crossover to independence and adulthood,” Shaver said.

When shoppers come into the store “the community will meet all of these wonderful clients and how able and wonderful they are,” Shaver said. “This is a way for them to get experience to become independent adults and, hopefully, people see that and hire them.”

Ultimately, Ridley said, that is what the store can do – show retail business owners that the young people might need a little extra direction but they also are solid employees.

The first products started going onto shelves Monday. Shaver acknowledged that the offerings right now are a little thin and that to expand they need “adult” crafting supplies – things such as silk flowers, wreath forms, ribbons and decorative containers.

The first supply donation came from Shaver’s sister, a principal in another school district.

“When COVID started, she decided she was going to become a crafter” and ended up with a basement filled with supplies.

“She was our first major donor,” Shaver said.

There also is room for growth.

They have a 10-month lease for the 1,500-square-foot spot.

Ideally, Ridley said, a 3,000-square-foot space would allow them to set up an “apartment” to continue working on those life skills while also working at the store.

BRIDGES also hopes to expand by getting more shelving to display the clients’ work, and maybe in the future offering repainted furniture in the store, too, Ridley said.

First, they have to open, which currently is set for Oct. 6. The Across the Bridge Facebook page created by clients will keep the public updated on the store’s progress.

“We will be open every day there is school during school hours,” Shaver said.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the name of Ricky Ramirez.

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