Breaking down barriers: Paraquad expands to create opportunities for people with disabilities

The Bloom Café is now budding. It opened March 21 with lines of people waiting for their coffee, pastries, and fresh soups and sandwiches all morning and afternoon. But this is no ordinary St. Louis coffee shop – it’s an innovative social enterprise that provides training and employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

“People with disabilities are employed at about half the rate of people without disabilities, and we’re looking for ways to change those statistics,” said Aimee Wehmeier, CEO of the nonprofit Paraquad, which owns and operates the café. “St. Louis is certainly known for its hospitality industry, and there’s a significant need for qualified workers in our community. Our idea was to help individuals with disabilities get the skills and experience they need to fill those gaps in the industry.”

The Bloom Café offers a 12-week job training program, followed by a paid internship where participants hone skills and gain experience before entering the workforce. Additional job readiness assistance includes resume writing and interview preparation.

The social enterprise café is just one part of a three-pronged expansion that Paraquad advanced in 2017. They also opened a state-of-the-art, accessible Health and Wellness Center for people with disabilities and completely renovated their offices. IFF provided a $1 million loan and $7 million of New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) allocation toward the project. Additional NMTC allocations were made by Enterprise Bank ($4.5 million) and St. Louis Development Corporation ($5 million). The combined NMTC allocations allowed Paraquad to raise $5.47 million in equity, which was provided by US Bank.

“We could not have done any of these projects without the support of IFF,” Wehmeier said. “It’s been a complicated process that took a lot of planning and preparation to make happen. We worked with many entities along the way, but the group that we had the strongest relationship with was IFF. It was a great partnership that evolved into a friendship.”

This was the fourth time IFF’s Capital Solutions group has worked with the nonprofit since 2008.

The Health and Wellness Center opened last January, allowing Paraquad to double the number of participants they serve. According to Wehmeier, the fully accessible 35,000-square-foot facility looks just like a traditional gym – a lot of the exercise equipment is universal, meaning it can be used by a person with or without disabilities. The only difference is the diversity of people using the gym and the skillset of the people staffing the gym.

“You might see a blind person using a treadmill that has braille on the control pads. You might see equipment with removable seats so that a person can pull up using a wheelchair. You might see an occupational therapist helping someone velcro their hands to a machine so they have a firm grip. But for the most part, it looks and feels like a typical gym,” Wehmeier said.

Across the street from the new Health and Wellness Center is the Paraquad headquarters, where renovations were completed in September. Previously, nearly one-third of the space was taken up by hallways, which literally divided people and departments. The new open floor plan makes more efficient use of the space.

Or as Wehmeier puts it: “When you open up space and remove barriers, you get the opportunity for everyone to work together in a fully accessible and integrated way.”

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