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Adults with disabilities take ownership of Eddie Merlot's garden

Erica Benson -
Helping Hand client Kevin Peck of Countryside pulls weeds July 18 at the garden outside Eddie Merlot's restaurant in Burr Ridge.
Erica Benson - Helping Hand client Kevin Peck of Countryside pulls weeds July 18 at the garden outside Eddie Merlot's restaurant in Burr Ridge.

BURR RIDGE – The name says it all: Helping Hand.

While Helping Hand Center may be known for serving children and adults with disabilities, its members are no stranger to helping others as well, including Eddie Merlot’s restaurant in Burr Ridge.

At the beginning of the year, members of Helping Hand worked on the janitorial staff at the restaurant as a way to gain vocational training. Then in May, general manager Mike Rufo teamed up with executive chef Dan Tucker to install a garden to not only supply fresh produce and ingredients for the restaurant, but also to provide more opportunities for Helping Hand members.

“This was just another outlet for us to give back to these guys a little bit,” Rufo said. “They’re just super team members and really enjoy getting out there and helping.”

Rufo said the team has taken ownership of the garden as a couple members were outside braving the heat wave and working with Eddie Merlot’s staff on some of the tending. Kevin Peck of Countryside was all smiles but hard at work as he ended up getting a little dirtier than expected pulling weeds and picking produce.

“What [Helping Hand] really likes is that we partnered with them and are helping their guys that are here to take ownership of the place and feel good about where they’re working,” Rufo said. “It’s just another outlet for them to feel good and feel comfortable where they’re at.”

Carolyn Kline, director of community outreach at Helping Hand Center, said the relationship between the Eddie Merlot’s and Helping Hand has been “fantastic.”

“They have been so accommodating and open to hiring people with developmental disabilities and they make it like a priority to accommodate us,” Kline said. “It’s been more like a partner with us. It goes beyond the employment.”

The garden features basil, herbs, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, peppers, strawberries and watermelon to name a few items that Tucker uses every day with meals on the menu. But working full time as a chef in an acclaimed restaurant didn’t always seem like the path he was on.

“I did kind of the normal high school thing, went off to college, majored in pizza and beer, and evidently you’re supposed to show up to class so they asked me not to come back anymore,” Tucker said. “My folks booted me out of the house and I got a job at a restaurant in Champaign with a bunch of my friends from high school.”

While there, some people at the restaurant convinced him to come and work in the kitchen. After that, cooking clicked with Tucker as he then pursued cooking school. Two years ago, he started at Eddie Merlot’s, but said he and Rufo had been kicking around the idea about starting the garden for a while. Now with the assistance from Helping Hand, Tucker said the experience has been incredible.

“From strictly a business view, everything you could possibly ask from an employee these guys can do,” Tucker said of Helping Hand. “They’re hardworking, they show up on time and they have a great attitude. The fact that we’re doing a feel good thing with them is just a cherry on top.”

Kline said Helping Hand plans on doing more vocational work as the organization is setting up more tours.

“We’ve been taking them to different businesses and community partners, people we work with, and giving them tours so that they can just understand a business, do the behind the scenes and find out what opportunities are available to them,” Kline said.

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