As the mother of a special-needs adult, Marinette’s Jennifer Shiller worried about the future. This is an apprehension shared by other parents. If something happens and neither parent is able to provide care, what will happen to their child?
“All parents of a child with a disability have the same fears,” she said. “They want to have a safe and loving place where their adult children can grow up. As they say, “it takes a whole village to raise a child”, and this especially applies to the community with special needs.
It was with this concern that Shiller formed a nonprofit dedicated to his son. A Place for Max obtained 501(c)3 status in 2019, just before the pandemic hit and delayed fundraising for a facility. It also led to the start of a second business, A Place for Coffee, a for-profit venture that would donate a portion of its sales to help fund the non-profit organization.
“COVID propelled me into building a business,” Shiller said. “I took the pulse of this town and realized that the opportunities in this small town were huge. I saw that there were cafes, but most of them were drive-thru. There were no places to sit and have a coffee.
The next step was to find a location, and with the help of a local real estate agent, she fell in love with a building that had been a former church and was more recently an antique store. The building had a warm ambience and a unique character. She bought it and set to work converting it.
Shiller, who works remotely as a music licensing researcher for several major film companies, said she spent as many hours as possible on her research work to raise funds to run the store. Some funds were paid into a separate business account so that she could pay for important expenses without constantly being faced with bills.
The job coincided with learning to comply with necessary business regulations. For that help, she went to SCORE and was assigned a mentor from the Green Bay chapter, Ann Hartnell.
“Without SCORE, I don’t think I would have ever been able to start this business,” Shiller said. “Ann helped me step-by-step with taxes, quarterly filings, monthly reports, sales systems, unemployment insurance and other details. It’s the minutia that many people understand, but for me, it was terrifying.
As she followed the steps, the business took shape. The renovation process took longer than expected, but she had the help of her family. His son’s father worked with wood and made a counter; licensed contractors were hired for the electrical and plumbing work. The perfect chairs (antiques in excellent condition) were discovered on Facebook Marketplace where she also searched for used equipment.
But after looking at used items and talking to a friend who owned a coffee shop in California, Shiller decided to buy some new ones in order to have a warranty. This increased start-up costs more than expected – the espresso machine alone cost $15,000. Once the machine arrived, the next step was to learn how to use it.
“I’ve always loved coffee, but I didn’t know how to make specialty coffee drinks,” she said. “I spent three months experimenting and coming up with unique drinks.”
Based on this, she created a menu that includes lattes, cappuccinos, filter coffee, chai tea lattes, loose leaf tea, and pre-packaged baked goods. There is a wide assortment of syrups to entice customers to create their own creations.
It took over a year, but it opened in October. A manager, Kelsey Shruck, has been hired (she said she was incredibly lucky to have found an experienced barista who had just moved to the area), and the business is growing.
“I’m the owner, a bartender, a cashier, a cleaner,” Shiller said. “There’s nothing I’m not going to help with. I’m a little afraid to tackle the next few months because I’m starting two new films. Film clearance is a demanding job, and I’m afraid there will be times when I spend all day going back and forth.
Added to this will be his ongoing work on the non-profit organization. She recently made an offer on an old school, and if she agrees with the seller, the building will need substantial renovation. His vision is to convert every large classroom into approximately three apartments for adults with disabilities. Other additions will include new bathrooms; a media room for games, movies and social activities; a gym; and a classroom.
“I would like to house between 10 and 15 residents with enough caregivers to support them,” she said. “Once I have the building, I plan to start fundraising and applying for grants.”
Shiller has already garnered donor interest and fundraising to achieve her goals. In addition to having housing, she also plans to hire adults with special needs at the café. The first person hired is his son, Max, and he will be working part-time.
“My son inspires me to do all of this,” she said.
Between a full-time job, a nonprofit, and a new business, that’s all she needs. She builds on her strengths and says she is a 360 degree thinker. When there is a problem to be solved, she sees it from top to bottom and traces in her head the path to get there. If she has a weakness, it’s that she tries to control everything.
But now, with a skilled manager at the cafe, Shiller says she’s been able to let go and trust others to get the job done. This frees her to focus on the future.
She said: “Eventually most of my time will be spent on A Place for Max. I want to help parents of children with special needs. When I moved to Marinette from California, the lack of resources here really shocked me. There was also a level of discomfort around these children and education is going to be very important.
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and former district manager of SCORE, Wisconsin.