Here are a few suggestions for feel-good holiday giving from Seen & Heard, a new community integration project run by Systems Unlimited, which works to increase visibility for people with disabilities in Iowa City. Every single day since the project began in August, we’ve been out meeting with community leaders, enjoying Iowa City’s cultural opportunities and getting to know the town. We’ve had the chance to shop some local businesses we think everyone should keep in mind and consider supporting during the holidays. Some have welcomed us in extraordinary ways, some have provided jobs to people with disabilities and all of them have made our community more inclusive.
Combined Efforts Theatre
Nominated by Iver Hovet
“I fully recommend that you buy tickets to Combined Efforts’ winter play, Zwicky’s Air, running Dec. 14-16. I say get a gift that’s less materialistic and more full of goodwill for all. I’ve been an actor for Combined Efforts since high school, and I can say it’s really fun to see people with and without disabilities get together and put on plays, though we also have a men’s chorus and a women’s dance troupe. I like to think it helps us have a real purpose. It’s important for people with disabilities to express ourselves fully, in a way everyone can understand. So my advice is, buy some tickets and have some quality happy holiday time with family and friends.”
Nominated by Mahmoud Yousif
“Come to Nodo (5 S Dubuque St and 600 N Dodge St) — it’s always fresh and clean. I know because I mop the floors, clean the bathroom, clean the mirrors, vacuum the stairs. Nodo gives me money. If you buy a gift certificate or eat there, you help them and they help me. Get fries! I can work! It’s awesome.”
Nominated by Johnny Gates
“I work at Cottage on Friday and Saturday. I wash dishes and say hello to everyone! Judy is my niece; she’s nice. Everyone there is my friend. Come have a cinnamon roll — it’s good! We got coffee.”
Cottage (230 E Benton St) offers gift certificates as well as holiday goodies. Johnny and his peers can vouch for the quality of their dinner rolls, of which they donated 200 for a Thanksgiving feast at Employment Systems.
Nominated by Katie Stewart
“I like to go to a movie. I love FilmScene. FilmScene gives [groups from Employment Systems] a good deal on a ticket and a pop. They have beer, too. Movies I can’t see other places. Buy a ticket for your mom!”
Seen & Heard would also like to thank FilmScene (118 E College St) for opening during daytime hours for our participants.
Nominated by Mary Helen Kennerly
Home Ec (424 E Jefferson St) provides workshops on sewing and fiber arts as well as workspaces, equipment and materials for a holiday DIY. Level up from the scarf — go for fingerless gloves for your loved ones. Seen & Heard participants can attest to the quality of Home Ec’s instruction, as several in our group took part in a sewing workshop that Home Ec held within our budget. We are confident enough to have now finished beautifully embroidered blankets on our own. Home Ec’s inclusion-minded owner Codi introduced us to a pedal-free sewing machine that allowed folks in wheelchairs to use it independently.
Tucked away on the northeast side of town, Home Ec rents its work spaces to groups for either independent or instructor-led project parties, so your gift could either be the product of materials you bought there, or it could be the process itself: an afternoon spent with friends working together to create something truly beautiful.
Nominated by Katie Stewart
“Studio (13 S Linn St) lets me and my friends dance every Monday afternoon. [They host a long-running dance party for people with disabilities from 5-7 p.m.] I can dance with my boyfriend there. I like that. I get kisses.”
Katie agrees that reserving a table ($20 per four people on Friday/Saturday night, which includes cover) would be a great way to bring your friends out, even on a cold night.
Nominated by Ben Lewis
“These people are honestly a bunch of geniuses.”
Ben got turned on to this daffy Iowa City fixture after White Rabbit agreed to help Employment Systems screen print some T-shirts designed by people in the day program. If you saw Systems Unlimited’s float in this year’s homecoming parade, you saw their shirts, which White Rabbit printed with unparalleled turn-around time and affordability. A far cry from the trash corporate T-shirts that seem to multiply in your drawers, these are super-soft wearable art made by community-minded folks who run a rad establishment. From stickers to socks to framed art, at White Rabbit you can find a high-quality gift of local artistry at pretty much any price.
Nominated by Iver Hovet
“Well, who doesn’t like to go bowling — especially in the dead of winter? Colonial Lanes (2253 Old Hwy 218 S) puts a ramp up for the ball so that my friends in wheelchairs can bowl, and for that I give them the highest commendation. Let’s hear it for the Lanes!”
Uptown Bill’s Coffee House
Nominated by us all
A café-slash-used bookstore-slash-music venue in the exuberant spirit of Wild Bill Sackter, Uptown Bill’s, 713 S Dubuque St, serves as an impromptu meeting place for people with disabilities during the day and at night hosts as high-quality acts as you’d find at the Englert, only in an intimate setting. Step into the shop for a book or meet a friend for a show and you may find that the gift you give is to yourself: This is where real, deep-rooted Iowa City is, and discovering this place is one way to make this town your home. You’ll stumble onto something here that you didn’t know you needed: a flyer for a foraging workshop happening tomorrow; a local celebrity made unassuming somehow by the space, and who’s up for connecting with an inspired fan; an AA meeting timed for lunchbreaks.
We hope these give you some ideas to make your holiday shopping less stressful and more affirming of your bonds to your loved ones and your community. Wouldn’t that be something! We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention a few other establishments that employ or provide natural supports for people we serve: Shakespeare’s, Panera Bread, Pizza Ranch, Carlos O’Kelly’s and Jimmy Jack’s Rib Shack.
Mary Helen Kellerly is activity leader for Seen & Heard. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 253.