By Lilla Ross-
For Exceptional Entrepreneurs, it’s not about the paycheck, but there’s a definite pay off. Three days a week 17 adults with developmental disabilities, ranging in age from 18 to 76, gather at Grace Community Center to perform simple jobs with the assistance of a dozen regular volunteers, said Executive Director Margaret Wear.
They provide services like shredding, collating and basic computer repair and maintenance. And, they make things like yard art from vinyl records, wreaths and fire logs made from shredded paper.
The products are sold at Franklin Shops in downtown Fort Myers, Florida, and on Facebook. The proceeds help support the program, making up about a third of the budget.
Exceptional Entrepreneurs is a ministry of Grace Church, a multisite United Methodist church with campuses in Cape Coral, Fort Myers and Sarasota. The ministry to the disabled and their families works on the premise that the disabled are capable of knowing Jesus as their “Forever Friend” and sharing His unconditional love with others.
Included are a weekly Through the Roof buddy ministry, pairing a special needs child with an adult buddy in the children’s ministry as parents attend worship, and a monthly Respite Night for families in which child and siblings are cared for, giving their daily caregivers a night out.
The program was started in the fall of 2012 by Betty Henderson, a former special education teacher and avid gardener. In the beginning, six special education students from Lee County public schools, accompanied by two volunteers, came once a day to work on a worm farm, which produced garden compost and fishing bait.
As the program expanded, the students began making yard art using melted vinyl records that were shaped into flowers and painted.
In October 2013, the program expanded with the help of a $30,000 grant from the Southwest Florida Community Foundation that enabled the program to hire two disabled adults for nine hours a week. By February 2015, 13 people were employed and 20 students from four high schools came regularly to learn job skills.
But the school-focused program had become unwieldy, with students from different schools arriving at different times, Wear said. It was decided to repurpose the program to focus on helping disabled adults. That is when Wear came on board as executive director. She had worked with moderately disabled students as an employment specialist with the Lee County school system.
With a new focus, the program expanded its array of items made by the participants to sell, increased training and improved the quality of the materials used.
“Nobody just sits,” Wear said. “Everyone needs to be engaged in meaningful activities. We give them the opportunity to experience different jobs and tasks. You can get an idea if it’s something they like to do. Once you find their interests, you try to stretch their interests, and you see some amazing progress.”
One young man, Josh, who has autism, was nonverbal when he started with the program, but now he can speak complete sentences and sometimes leads the prayer at the morning devotional, Wear said.
Another woman, Nicole, was so frightened at first that she cried and cried and wrapped herself in an orange blanket, Wear said. Though she is still reluctant to interact directly with people many days, she watches everything in a mirror over her workstation. She has blossomed into a promising artist, and her work is being marketed.
At 76, Walter is the oldest entrepreneur. He rides his bike to a store where he sells honey sticks, five to a package.
Each workday begins at 9 a.m. with a devotional. After lunch, the focus shifts from working to learning life skills and socializing. Friday is movie day when this unique working family meets somewhere for lunch and goes to a movie.
Last summer the participants went through a 14-week culinary arts program. A financial planning class was offered to families. In December, participants had the chance – some for the first time – to dress up and be escorted down a red carpet to a Christmas party.
Exceptional Entrepreneurs is a ministry that lets disabled adults – who are often ostracized – work, learn and play.
Lilla Ross is a freelance writer based in Jacksonville, Florida. Reprinted by permission of the Florida Annual Conference.