‘Pardners’ Find Friendship, Confidence at Nonprofit Eatery

Cody Pardners founder Kathy Liscum works with Pardner Micah Follweiler to ring up an order at Pardners Café in Cody. (Yellowstone Gate photo by Ruffin Prevost)

CODY, Wyo. — Westy Kline’s dream job is to work as a game and fish agent, spending time outdoors patrolling the landscape on horseback and looking after wildlife. But for now, she said she’s pretty happy working at the Pardners Café.

Sometimes Kline works serving customers or ringing up orders. Other days she cleans tables. But she prefers working in the kitchen preparing food.

“Today I was in the kitchen. I like that job. I know what to do, they don’t have to tell me at all, and I do a lot every day,” said Kline, 41, one of nine adult  “Pardners” with developmental disabilities who work at the café, which opened 18 months ago in the Cody branch of the Park County Public Library.

“A lot of Pardners will ask me to help them out if they need help, and I help them,” Kline said.

Helping each other out with meaningful work is at the core of what Pardners Café is all about, said Kathy Liscum, founder of Cody Pardners, the community nonprofit that operates the café.

Liscum started Cody Pardners after moving to Wyoming from Texas, where a long-established program there called Brookwood had developed a residential and vocational community for adults with disabilities. Brookwood “citizens,” as they are called, help staff a café and gift shop selling food and craft items made by citizens.

Pardner Westy Kline, from left, works with volunteer mentors Erika Decker, Kathy Liscum and Becky Follweiler in the kitchen of Pardners Café. (Yellowstone Gate photo by Ruffin Prevost)

As Liscum’s 23-year-old son Colin, who has Down syndrome, was graduating from Cody High School a few years ago, she wanted to make sure he had an opportunity to work and interact with the community. She saw Brookwood as a potential model for Park County.

“Quite honestly, what I thought was, ‘You know, I could do that.’ It just seemed like a project that was doable,” she said.

So in 2019, Liscum and her husband attended a workshop in Texas hosted by Brookwood, where participants learned the nuts and bolts of establishing a similar enterprise.

Change in plans

Their original idea was to launch a Cody Pardners summer camp pilot program in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled those plans.

In the meantime, Colin had begun working at Heritage Bakery & Bistro, a small coffee shop, lunch spot and bakery co-owned by Patsy Carpenter, who connected with Liscum through their church.

“It truly was my honor to be able to be a part of that,” Carpenter said. “Every one of the Pardners are image-bearers of God, and that is exactly why I became involved in Cody Pardners, and that’s why I am still involved.”

The two women worked together to bring in other Pardners to help around Heritage with tasks like clearing tables and making to-go food orders that could be sold independently to benefit the program.

Around that same time, the café space in the library became available, and the Park County Commissioners were entertaining proposals from prospective new tenants. Several commercial dining operations had already rotated through the space, often drawing criticism from some taxpayers who didn’t like the county-funded library subsidizing private ventures in the form of below-market rent.

Liscum pitched the idea of Pardners Café, and the county eventually struck a deal to rent the space — a restaurant area with seating for approximately 50 and a well-equipped commercial kitchen — to Cody Pardners for $1 per month.

The community has shown solid and sustained support for the café, Liscum said, with two dozen adults regularly volunteering in various roles. Many are mentors who work individually with each Pardner to make sure they are supported in every part of their jobs.

Pardner Westy Kline prepares food for lunch in the Pardners Café, located in the main branch of the Park County Library in Cody. (Yellowstone Gate photo by Ruffin Prevost)

Kline’s mother, Connie Kline, 74, said it was “really important to me to know that somebody has got her back. Every person that works there has a mentor, so they’re never on their own.”

“It’s not that they do the jobs for them, but the mentors are there as backup and security,” she said. “And sometimes, Westy even helps some of the mentors because they’ll come and ask her questions about how to do something.”

Local vendors have offered goods and services at reduced cost, and a rotating roster of businesses and community members each week sponsor a coffee station, which is free to café customers and library patrons. Liscum said she is always looking for help from new volunteers, working not only as mentors in the café, but in building a website or managing social media or helping with administrative chores and other tasks.

Many side benefits

Deb White, owner of Wyoming Sport and Fitness, has volunteered to host a twice-weekly fitness class after work for those Pardners who are interested, Liscum said.

Kline attends the fitness class and said she enjoys it.

“I’m learning things that I can do with weights, and I’m getting stronger,” she said. “And they tell me what [exercises] I can do at home, too.”

The fitness class is one of many side benefits Pardners Café offers its workers. While the organization’s finances don’t currently allow it to pay Pardners a wage, it has used café proceeds to host dinners and outings for them.

That has included trips to Billings, Montana, to see a magic show, followed by ice cream, and a separate trip there to an indoor water park. The Pardners also enjoyed a dinner at the Olive Garden in Billings.

Liscum said she hopes to grow the café so she can eventually pay Pardners at least minimum wage. Her ultimate goal is to create a smaller version of the Brookwood community in Cody. But for now, the café is financially self-sustaining and serves as a safe, welcoming space where Pardners can spend time productively, build friendships with each other and interact with community members.

“I have great friends to talk to, and we all like it there and have fun,” Kline said. “We go do activities and hang out together.

Pardners also learn new skills — always with a mentor — like how to safely use knives or properly follow food safety protocols. During slower hours, they have worked on jobs like applying labels to bulk mailings and creating craft items for sale in the café.

Part of the café’s success, and a key to expanding the business, is its growing number of repeat customers. Its location in the Park County Complex — a large private office and government building with a diverse range of tenants — means many who work there often stop by for coffee or a snack.

Patrons eat lunch in the Pardners Café, located in the main branch of the Park County Library in Cody. (Yellowstone Gate photo by Ruffin Prevost) 

A ‘major asset’

Brian Beauvais, Curator of the Park County Archives, works in the building and is a regular customer.

“I think they’ve done an excellent job creating a friendly atmosphere in the restaurant space. It’s definitely a major asset to the library and the Cody community,” Beauvais said. “The café is a great cause, and I have an extraordinary amount of respect for all the work the employees and volunteer helpers put into the place. Not to mention, the food is always good.”

The café opens at 9:15 a.m. weekdays and serves egg-and-cheese sandwiches, bagels, and other breakfast fare. Lunch service runs from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., with offerings like homemade soups, sandwiches and salads. A variety of muffins, cookies and other treats are always available.

Kline’s favorite is the Texas turkey panini, a grilled turkey and mozzarella sandwich served on sourdough with arugula and jalapeño jam, a lunch item she sometimes makes for herself.

“She’s taken on a lot of responsibility on her own,” Connie Kline said of her daughter. “She has to get herself on and off the bus, be on time and make sure she has bus tickets and money.”

Kline’s growing confidence and independence are clearly apparent to Liscum and Connie, as well as others who know her.

“You know, she’s just changed a lot, and she’s so happy with all of the people she’s met there,” Connie said.

That confidence was on full display last month after Kline attended Rascal Rodeo in Cody, a traveling, inclusive and adaptive rodeo for children and adults with developmental disabilities staged by a nonprofit of the same name based in the state of Washington.

Kline got to fulfill a lifelong dream of riding a horse, and made sure to tell her mother several times over the next few days how much fun it was. She repeated the story again after a friend heard about Kline’s ride and gave her a souvenir sheriff’s badge, which she pinned to her cowboy hat.

“I heard the same story probably 10 times, and all of a sudden she’s sitting on the couch and she’s pretty quiet,” Connie said. “Then she gets up and says to me, ‘I’ve got a horse, I’ve got a hat and I’ve got a badge. There’s a new sheriff in town.’”

Republished with permission from Wyoming Truth.

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