Chestnut House students learn about life, living by running sweet business
JANESVILLE You probably don't know this muffin man. And you've likely never heard of these muffin women.
They busied themselves in a kitchen in the city's Fourth Ward last week as the smells of apple-spice muffins filled the house.
The muffin man was the affable Dylan Johnson, who chattered as he scooped batter into baking cups. A guest remarked he was talking a lot.
"I get that from my teachers," Johnson said. He delivered the zinger within earshot of Barb Reidenbach, who was working next to him and overseeing the operation. She took the joke in stride.
"I pick on her, and she picks on me," Johnson said of Reidenbach. "I'm the comedian in this house."
Anne Lawrence, who seemed to get more scooping done while talking less, just rolled her eyes and smiled.
Johnson and Lawrence are two of the 14 students at Chestnut House, perhaps one of the least known educational facilities in the city.
With a lot of help, the students run a small business out of this kitchen.
"This is our main fundraiser for the students, and it gives them the opportunity to learn job skills," said Reidenbach, an aide who came up with the idea three years ago.
A few students take on the main production duties each month. Johnson and Lawrence were assisted by Bree Sasseen-Graves, who bagged the muffins after they had cooled and placed them in plastic bins for delivery.
It was Sasseen-Graves' favorite task.
"It's fun and relaxing," she said with a big grin.
Customers typically buy a subscription for one muffin a month, a different flavor each month. The number of orders varies, but at last year's peak, 300 people were buying.
The kitchen is inside 628 Chestnut St., which looks much like other well-kept homes in Janesville's Fourth Ward. Inside, it's a school where a select few Janesville School District students learn.
The 14 students, all of whom have disabilities, often learn by being out in the community. They ride the city bus, exercise at the YMCA, and visit places where they might receive services, such as the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation office. They work or look for jobs.
They work in kitchens, stores or other businesses, often doing menial tasks such as cleaning.
Chestnut House has been around for 22 years. It has always been a place where students with disabilities could practice the practical skills they needed to live independently, said teacher Judy Wilson.
"They make mistakes, figure out problems, and they realize, 'Oh my gosh, I'm doing this,'" Wilson said.
They learn about telling time, being on time, budgeting, current events and building character—what Wilson calls "being givers, not takers."
Most have IQs of 70 or below. Some with higher IQs have autism and need to work on social skills, Wilson said.
The program was revamped in recent years to concentrate on students who are 18 to 21 years old who have met graduation requirements at their high schools.
Wisconsin law provides for public-school education through age 21 for students with disabilities.
The program's size was set at 10 students, but it currently handles 14.
"There probably will come a time when we'll have to turn people away," Wilson said.
The staff comprises Wilson, Reidenbach, aide Ronda Schyvinck and a variety of volunteers and guest speakers.
Ten of the 14 students already have been placed in government-subsidized housing at Garden Court Apartments in Janesville. Others are working toward the goal of moving out of their parents' homes.
The program receives more than $90,000 a year in per-student state aid. It spends about $135,000 a year on salaries and benefits for the three staff members. A federal grant for students with disabilities pays utility bills of about $3,000 a year.
Wilson said she receives about $200 a year to fund activities, so much is donated, and the muffins pay for the rest.
The muffins net about $3,400 a year with profits of about $2,250.
Students each contribute $20 a week for groceries and prepare a communal lunch each day. And once a month they make delicious muffins.
The muffins have the standard ingredients, including eggs, vanilla, water, sugar flour, oil, and in the case of the October flavor of the month, applesauce.
Reidenbach would not reveal one of the ingredients.
"Because then anybody could make it," she said.
"It's a secret," Lawrence added.
It was apparent to a visitor that one ingredient was a sweetness that doesn't come from the sugar.