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Spice shop in downtown Oswego gives those with disabilities opportunity to work

Young adult Karley Hanson grabs a canister of loose leaf tea, a scoop and a scale, while co-worker Phillip Weir peels a label and places it on the bag for the tea before he hands it to Hanson to fill.

Both volunteers have taken advantage of job experience at the spice store called A Pinch of Happiness in downtown Oswego which was recently acquired in October by Celebrate Differences, a local organization that provides support to individuals with disabilities and their families.

“I’m here to get job training skills and I love spices and cooking. I fill tea and spices, ring up customers, give customers change and label. Filling the jars is my favorite because I like smelling the spices,” Hanson said.

Founder Rebecca Christiansen said in 2004 she gave birth to fraternal twins, Ryan and Kyle, and Ryan was diagnosed with Down syndrome. She said she and her husband felt like there were not resources and wanted to network more with other families in Kendall County.

In 2007, she began Celebrate Differences and for the first two years, the organization was highly concentrated on serving the Down syndrome community, but later branched off into an all-inclusive group.

Christiansen said the idea for the spice store stemmed from the MORE (More Opportunities for Recreation and Employment) group at Celebrate Differences, which promotes life and vocational skills and health and wellness while working within the community in which they live.

These young adults with disabilities have resources in high school and a transition program up to age 22 but after, Christiansen said, there wasn’t much to give her son and others life skills as well as job skills in order to find employment.

“After they are 22, then it’s time to apply for and find a job to get paid. We have parents and young adults that said they can’t find jobs. It was always on my radar to start some type of business. We found that the spice shop was for sale and I talked to the owner and asked ‘Do you think people with disabilities could measure out spices?’ We then went into negotiations,” Christiansen said.

The organization took ownership in October, but had a ribbon cutting March 8 with the Oswego Chamber of Commerce, community members, Celebrate Differences families, and village of Oswego and Oswego Township trustees in attendance.

“It was amazing. There were so many people in the store we couldn’t even move. The support was amazing. My son Ryan said it was like Christmas all over again,” Christiansen said.

Veronica Weir was brought into the store to compose a training program for the store. An educator by trade, she feels like educating these young adults is key to their future employment.

“This gives them basic job training such as how to be on time, wearing a uniform, customer interaction, and socialization and math skills. These kids are hardworking and dedicated and love the opportunity to work,” Veronica Weir said. “These young adults have better attendance and just love to have somewhere to go.”

The store is filled with basic spices, unique spice blend recipes, a variety of salts and peppers, as well as extracts, olive oils and loose leaf teas. Some spices are jarred and ready for pickup, and some are available in bulk containers and the customer can customize quantity.

“Another unique thing about the store is that the customer can bring in a recipe and we can work to find the specific blend they need,” Veronica Weir said.

On a busy Saturday morning, Hanson and Phillip Weir filled tea and spice special orders as well as used the cash register and wrapped and bagged purchases. Phillip Weir said his favorite thing to do was to work on the register.

Tara Benninger of Yorkville brought her daughter, Bri, and her son, John, who has disabilities, into the store to shop for spices. John said he liked to cook, with his favorites being spaghetti, salsa, tacos, salads and scrambled eggs.

“We saw on Facebook that this store was opening. He loves to cook and we love to cook and this could be something to look into for a job for him in the future,” Benninger said. “I believe it’s phenomenal, every kid needs a purpose.”

Weir said on top of the job training, she hopes this experience draws out the giftedness of each young adult who works at the store.

“Some young adults like to be in the back, and then you have Karley and Phillip who love interaction with customers. It draws confidence and special skills one step at a time,” Weir said.

Christiansen said right now the young adults work on a volunteer basis until the store can generate enough revenue to pay. She said some of the young adults are compensated through the WIOA (Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act) program because the store is considered a post training site for the federally funded program.

Weir said after she finalizes her training plan, the next step would be to share with other small businesses in the area, in hopes they too would be open to training and employing young adults with disabilities.

Christiansen also has dreams of creating a community for young adults with disabilities.

“I’m envisioning a community where they could work and live in the community. A community of tiny houses and businesses so they have employment and housing because there are not enough residential opportunities,” Christiansen said.

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