His gloved fingers move meticulously. The smell and sound of sizzling bacon drifts about the kitchen, each piece soon separated from the wax-papered baking pan.
Bradley Spidell has customers to serve.
Three mornings a week, he volunteers in the Garden View Café at Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital.
This morning, he pulls another pair of light-blue, powder-free Nitrilite gloves from their box.
Over the radio, Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham screams from a place only he knows—“You can go your own way”—followed by a brutal guitar.
Asked his favorite music, Spidell’s blue eyes point at the radio.
“That,” he says. And Bon Jovi. All the ’80s music. The stuff before he was born.
“We can’t listen to country music back here because Bradley hates country music,” says cook Darlene Johnson, smiling.
Spidell, 30, is a Northview High School alumnus. He makes a mean chicken salad, co-workers agree, and he’s an internet businessman in the creative arts.
He also has Down syndrome. The condition is known as trisomy 21, where individuals have 47 chromosomes in each cell instead of 46.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in every 700 babies in the U.S. is born with Down syndrome, the most common chromosomal condition. About 6,000 babies with Down syndrome are born in the U.S. each year.
Spidell is also one of more than 2,200 volunteers who find joy, purpose and community at Spectrum Health.
Walk into Blodgett Hospital and ask a random employee, “Where is the Garden View Café?” and the employee will offer to take you there. Then mention you’re here to talk to Spidell.
“Bradley?” the employee says. “Sure.”
“He always talks to customers. We love him,” says Sally Termeer, of today’s M.C. Blodgett Guild volunteers.
Spidell is direct. He has a firm handshake. He remembers your name and says it repeatedly during discussion. He has friendly blue eyes. He is charmingly abrupt. Out of nowhere, several times, his fist pumps your hand.
“OK, John, thank you,” he says, wearing his purple Spectrum smock and hairnet. “I have to go back to work now. Nice meeting you.”
Enough silliness, he seems to say. There’s volunteering to be done.
“He is a creature of habit,” says his mom, Barb Spidell, who works in Spectrum Health’s Information Services department. “Having a routine is very important to Bradley and helps him to be productive and successful.”
Spidell attended Northview schools as a special education student. After finishing in 2005, his focus was on gaining work skills and independence. He has also volunteered at the Wolverine YMCA and Keystone Community Church, bowls in two leagues, and maintains an apartment in the lower level of his parent’s home.
He also is an artist. Spidell cuts wooden blocks, then sands and paints onto them a rendition of your dog, cat or pet. Bradley’s Blocks are offered on the internet. He gets orders from the West to East coasts, largely through word of mouth, his mom said. Each block costs anywhere from $30 to $60. He sold more than 100 blocks in 2016. One of his portraits benefited the Bissell Pet Foundation, fetching $4,000 at the 2016 Bissell Blocktail auction.
Spidell works out of Hearts for the Arts, a studio that opened in 2008 on Grand Rapids’ West Side to help special needs clients develop projects and build the business skills needed for launch. It has broadened its clientele, but still reserves Wednesdays from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. for special efforts.
He promotes his portraits on Facebook and takes orders through Etsy, an e-commerce website featuring handmade or vintage items. He makes enough income to cover his art studio time, materials, supplies, marketing and shipping costs
His mentor is Shannon Andrus, owner of Hearts for the Arts. She is both an artist and recreational therapist.
“I knew Bradley really loved animals and he liked building things,” Andrus said. “He loved sawing, sanding and painting.”
Andrus paired Spidell’s love for dogs and cats—”They hiss at me!”—with his task-oriented skills. He likes to meet the pets, but he also works from photos.
He’s a busy man who’ll gladly make time for a lively chat, but make no mistake about it: He’s a hard worker—as any good businessman should be.
“Thanks for meeting me today,” he says, continuing on with the day’s demands. “Have a good day.”
He leaves no doubt he intends to do the same.