Wild Bill's still going strong


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The java industry has changed since 1975, when a cup of coffee went for 20 cents. 

Wild Bill’s, a coffee joint located in North Hall, fondly remembers these days — not just for the cheap price of coffee but as the year it began.

This week, Wild Bill’s Coffee Shop will celebrate 40 years of serving the Iowa City community — and more importantly, the University of Iowa School of Social Work.

“The idea hasn’t really changed, and that is to allow our students in particular but all students to interact with people of different abilities in a casual, relaxed, social environment,” said Jefri Palermo, the supervisor of the shop. “For anything to last 40 years is an accomplishment, but something this intensive … requires a lot of love, a lot of devotion, and support from a huge number of people.”

As the development coordinator for the School of Social Work, Palermo has seen first-hand the effect this institution and partnership has had on students.

Because the shop, which sells coffee and snacks and provides a quiet study space, is located on the first floor of North Hall, a partnership has grown between the employees of Wild Bill’s and the students in the social-work program. Currently, around 20 to 30 student volunteers spend time in the shop, working and interacting with the 13 employees, all of whom are people with disabilities.

“It’s the social hub of the school, and we consider it a learning lab for our students, because they get to form relationships with people they ordinarily might not encounter,” Palermo said. 

This week, Wild Bill's Coffee Shop, located in North Hall on the University of Iowa campus, is celebrating 40 years of serving coffee with the intent to engage and include people with special needs. The endeavor began with Bill Sackter, who started selling coffee to the students in 1975, and is remembered through the volunteers and staff members who have expanded upon his idea.

Hear Jefri Palermo, supervisor for the shop and development coordinator for the School of Social Work, tell the shops story.

Multimedia compiled and edited by Lily Abromeit

She believes stigma toward people with disabilities still exists, she said, but through the work at the shop, the walls start to come down.

“We tend to still segregate people with disabilities and to make them invisible, basically,” she said. “So our goal is to make them more visible and to continually raise awareness about issues of ability, because it’s an area of mistreatment and discrimination that doesn’t get much play. We’re slowly making progress, but it’s too slow.”

For Nadin Mustafa, the staff manager at Wild Bill’s and a master’s student in the School of Social Work, the interaction and relationships are important to not only the staff members but the students, too. 

“[For] the School of Social Work to have such a program that empowers the community members, I think it’s part of what we do as social workers,” she said. “So for students to have first-hand interaction on a daily basis with people of disabilities, I think it comes as a great advantage for them.”

For one social-work student, this is exactly why he brings his books to Wild Bill’s.

“It really embodies the spirit of social work to be in a place with [people with special needs] to give them so much interaction with all of us, and we really appreciate that, and we like so much about this place,” said Ed Bettis, a senior in the social-work program.

Not only is it an advantage, Mustafa said, but it also creates a fresh environment compared with the average Starbucks.

“It helps that we are … kind of quiet; it’s very homey,” she said. “A lot of times [students] come back for the individuals or the staff. It’s different than your regular coffee shop you would go into; the feeling is different.”

Wild Bill’s isn’t the only shop in Iowa City that has as its mission to hire and serve people with disabilities. Uptown Bill’s, 730 S. Dubuque St., is also named after Bill Sackter, a local hero and advocate for the disabled, who died in 1983. Uptown Bill’s will celebrate the 13th anniversary of its Open Mike at 7 p.m. today and Sackter’s birthday with an all-day “bash” Saturday.

As part of Wild Bill’s 40th-year celebration, the school will call on alumni and current students for donations to help sustain the organization.

“Our expenses continue to go up, and our revenue isn’t keeping pace,” Palermo said. “Next year, our budget is going to be really challenged, and we may have to cut back on the number of hours and employees. We don’t want to do that … so we need some help.”

Despite the continued expenses of running a coffee shop in a university building, Mustafa remains positive about the direction of Wild Bill’s.

“I really hope it grows,” she said. “I would like to see a different branch of [it] somewhere in the Coralville area.

“But for Wild Bill’s specifically, I really would like to just have …  every shift filled with a volunteer, just for us to keep moving and keep pushing and keep empowering people. I really hope that we’ll have 40 more years.”

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