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Behind the Scenes at Misericordia's Greenhouse Inn

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Leah B. scoops cookie batter onto trays in the bakery of the Greenhouse Inn at Misericordia Heart of Mercy, the Rogers Park residential facility for the mentally and physically challenged. Leah has been a community member for 15 years. "I can ice brownies, I can measure things," she says. "I have been baking since three; my grandmother taught me. My goal is to listen to what people are saying. My other goal is to talk like an adult and not cry at work."

She works across the table from Anne C., who's been at the home for four years. "We have to get along," says Leah. "It's not easy. Nothing's perfect." Anne smiles and agrees, adding, "Someday I'd like to put bread together and cook."

Open since 1990, the Greenhouse is a full-service restaurant, open four days a week for lunch only, where some 20 moderately challenged residents work shifts as waitstaff, sandwich makers, dishwashers, and cleanup crew. Upstairs in the bakery, two dozen more work with professional bakers, volunteers, and developmental counselors to supply brownies, fudge, cookies, muffins, and other pastries for the restaurant, the attached take-out counter, and corporate orders. Selling tins of cookies is one of many programs that raise money for Misericordia. "Last year the bakery made one million cookies for Christmas," says pastry chef Leisa Hancock. "We were literally working 24 hours seven days a week."

Counselors at Misericordia (run by the Sisters of Mercy under the auspices of the archdiocese of Chicago) consider on-site jobs--which also include housekeeping, horticulture, assembly production, and packaging--an opportunity to teach residents to work in systems, complete tasks, and resolve conflicts. To encourage creativity the center offers programs in art and poetry. "We're like a little town within ourselves," explains restaurant manager Nancy Turry, whose daughter Jenny is a resident.

Meals at the Greenhouse are prepared by professional cooks under food-service director Bob Noga, assisted by volunteers, mostly family of the residents. The extensive menu is eclectic: there's soup, a salad bar, a hot buffet, and cold and hot sandwiches including bratwurst, a Reuben, and barbecued pork. The buffet might offer chicken da Vinci, baked ham with pineapple salsa, seafood salad, Spanish potatoes, ambrosia, and more. And along with rotating daily specials there's also shrimp de Jonghe, Greek stir-fry chicken, and fettuccine Alfredo.

Longtime resident Marianne B. enjoys her job at the bakery's dishwashing machine. "I like work. I like to keep busy," she says. She also supervises Marc M. and Danny P., who put washed trays into a nearby rack. "Sometimes Marc gets upset, and I calm him down," Marianne says, giving her coworker a hug. She talks about her mother, who died of cancer. "Why didn't they have commercials against smoking when it could have helped her?"

Nearby, resident Megan F. prepares raspberries for compotes and cakes. "I would like the whole world to have raspberries that could be picked fresh and put into fresh containers," she says. She's been talking about the Dominick's-Safeway dispute. "I hope Mayor Daley can do something about it," she says. "I also want President Bush to come to Chicago to talk to the owner."

Ten-year resident Bill W.--whose painting of the post-9/11 future features a smiling Superman flying over a revived New York--was recently promoted from beverage server to assistant general manager of the staff dining area. "I was a dishwasher since I was very young," he says. "That catapulted my career. Now I'm exploring the hemisphere."

His coworker Jill S., an 18-year resident, has been a hostess and waitperson in the restaurant for ten years. This year she's helping with the Christmas brunches. "I mix batter and put it in the waffle iron," she says. Last year three weekends' worth of sold-out Christmas brunches accommodated 4,000 people; the last of three offered this year is Sunday, December 22; limited seating is still available at 12:30. Starting January 5 the restaurant will offer a Sunday brunch buffet every week (from 10 to 2:30) in addition to the Tuesday through Friday lunch service (11 to 2:30).

Bill is also a poet--in "Living at Misericordia," he writes: "My thought is like an open field. I haven't seen a lot of change in my time. I am only one person, a friend, a protector of the whole world." In the hallway at Misericordia, he recites the poem by heart. When he finishes, Jill smiles and says, "How sweet."

The Greenhouse Inn is at 6300 N. Ridge. Reservations are required for the Christmas brunch; call 773-973-6300.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Fogelman.

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