NAPERVILLE, Ill. (AP) — Megan and Justin Elder have a longtime dream of making the world a sweeter and more inclusive place — especially for people with disabilities.
That's the driving force behind Moose & Me Bakery, an operation launched out of their Naperville home that aims to hire employees of all abilities. And it's why they hope to soon open a retail storefront and expand their team with help from an online fundraiser.
In less than three weeks, the bakery's Kickstarter campaign raised more than $40,000 of a $50,000 goal.
"It shows that this is something that's wanted and needed in our community," Justin Elder said. "We're well on our way to making this dream become a reality."
Lifelong residents of the Naperville area, the Elders started a ministry about 15 years ago for adults and teens with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
"We no longer do that, but it's been a passion for us for a long time," Justin said.
The couple has since adopted two girls with Down syndrome, Mila and Audrey, whose long-term aspirations and opportunities are often top of mind.
Naperville schools are known for their special education programs, their dad said, but integrated employment is harder to find.
"Our adults with disabilities kind of age out, and there's not a great spot for them," he said.
Eight-year-old Mila, nicknamed "Moose," has grown up baking with her mom, who often makes sweet treats for friends and relatives.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Justin Elder and Megan started brainstorming how to spend their extra time — and how to transform their hobby into a business endeavor where their girls could one day work.
Moose & Me Bakery kicked off last year but was temporarily placed on hold to finalize licensing details, he said. The operation relaunched March 21 for World Down Syndrome Day.
"As we looked big picture-wise at what we can do in our community, this was a way we could see inclusion within Naperville," Justin Elder said.
The Elders hired two employees, 31-year-old Jake Lukens and 26-year-old Michelle Anderson, both of whom have Down syndrome. They're quick learners who take great pride in their work, and they practice new baking techniques every day, Justin Elder said.
They've also had a chance to share their experiences with friends and family, he said, pointing to a recent birthday party for which the Moose & Me team baked a cake and cupcakes.
And then there's Mila, the company's namesake, who has become an integral part of the operation with her enthusiasm and love of being in the kitchen.
"She likes to watch and be involved as much as she can be," her dad said. "She's always the first to greet people at the door, and (during events), she's there to show off her brand."
The bakery has seen a lot of consistent business so far, Justin Elder said, including orders that aim to raise awareness for Down syndrome and autism.
In addition to making customized cookies, cupcakes and cakes, the team sells its sweets at community events and through partnerships with local shops.
Moose & Me isn't limited to employing individuals with Down syndrome, he said, noting the bakery is "inclusive of everybody" and plans to hire more workers of all abilities as soon as feasibly possible.
The Elders have been eyeing various Naperville storefronts where they could relocate the business.
In addition to moving into and renovating a new space, the Elders said money raised through the Kickstarter would go toward purchasing bakery equipment, such as a large convection oven, a commercial mixer, refrigerators, freezers, prep tables and supplies.
"As we consider spaces, one of the most important aspects that we are looking for is the ability to create space for meaningful interactions between our employees and our customers," the owners said on their online fundraising page. "We're hopeful that a build-out will highlight our employees' baking abilities and give them the ability to interact with everyone that comes into the store."