Bridges: How sweet-potato pie is helping local special-needs students become independent

Amanda Slagle, left, makes crumb topping for the 42 apple crumb pies while Melissa Powell and Danielle Mongeon unwrap pie crust.
Amanda Slagle, left, makes crumb topping for the 42 apple crumb pies while Melissa Powell and Danielle Mongeon unwrap pie crust. News-Democrat

Twenty-five sweet potato pies takes 50 eggs. Forty-two apple crumb pies take 42 cups of flour, 42 cups of sugar and 42 sticks of sugar, all painstakingly crumbled by hand.

Ryan Blackwell Jr. and some of his classmates at Bridges Connections made those pies at the kitchen in St. Paul’s United Church of Christ on Monday morning, and he has one suggestion for those who devour them.

“I like cream on mine,” he said.

The pie-making extravaganza was to fill orders made by Belleville School District 201 staff and Bridges Connections parents, in addition to being a money-maker for the program. But the benefits hardly stop there.

The program serves about 55 students and is part of District 201. School districts are required to serve special-needs students through their 21st year – the last day of the program for the students is the day before his or her 22nd birthday.

There are no formal classes because the students have gone through that already. They work on a community garden and have craft time. They also work in the kitchen at the Bridges Connection house next to Belleville West, and do laundry. They also go on field trips to stores and businesses, when they aren’t taking classes at Southwestern Illinois College or volunteering elsewhere.

“The focus is on independent living, learning to function as part of society,” said Christine Gooding, of Bridges Connections.

The focus is on independent living, learning to function as part of society.

Christine Gooding, of Bridges Connections

And part of that independent living includes knowing how to crack eggs, to stir, to clean up, to solve problems such as finding more eggs or butter in the kitchen – and to work together.

“If I were to ask them, ‘Are you learning teamwork?’ (They would answer) ‘No!’” said teacher Robyn Louis. “It’s a teacher trick.”

That trick is helping prepare them for a life after Bridges Connections, when they may work at “competitive jobs,” Gooding says, or continue their volunteer efforts at the YMCA or at St. Paul’s. That life includes working with different students and staff to learn to work with others later.

St. Paul’s is one of the 22 area organizations that use Bridges volunteers.

“The kids come one or two times a week,” to clean the floors, says Mike Cannon, the church’s business director. “We get a little free janitorial service, but more for them to do organized, structured life skills, as they say.”

Cannon says St. Paul’s has had a relationship with Bridges Connections for at least five years.

On Monday, four young men gathered around large kitchen islands at St. Paul’s. Ryan put a stick of butter and one bag of mashed sweet potato in a large bowl, passing it to Daniel Hirst to mix. At the same time, another student cracked eggs and measured vanilla into another bowl, passing that bowl on to William Evans. William is in his last year of the program, and stirred sugar into the eggs with a whisk, admitting that he preferred to use the handheld mixer that Daniel was using to stir together the potato and sugar mixtures. Madison Brunner later helped, adding the whirring of her mixer to the only consistent noise in the kitchen.

Daniel would pass the last bowl to Lewis, who poured it into premade crusts and watched them in the ovens. The men at the table kept their heads down and their words few as they concentrated on each task.

At another workstation, two students were painstakingly making the crumb topping for the apple pies. Teacher’s aide Lisa House had repeatedly told them how to “pick it up – drop it” to make the crumb, not a crust. Amanda Slagle was later joined by Melissa Powell and Danielle Monegon, and they gently patted the crumb onto the apples, being careful not to spill.

“They may be only participating in part of it, but when they’re on their own it will trigger a memory because they have seen it 42 times,” Lewis said.

Each pie was made to order for staff and family, and cost $9. Lewis said the organization sees about an 80 percent profit on each pie, largely because the sweet potatoes came from the program’s own gardens and the apples were bought at cost from a local farmer.

Part of the Bridges Connections program is a garden, and last year they planted three large sweet potatoes from the store. They harvested more than 300 pounds of sweet potatoes, part of the 2,050 pounds of produce last year, “and that’s just the stuff we remembered to weigh!” Lewis said. She said the garden significantly decreases the cost to make the pies.