(This post has been updated.)
LaVelle Bland doesn’t say much. He answers in one word or with a sheepish shrug and smile. His close friend, Jessica Freeman, is just the opposite. She’s talkative, inquisitive, assertive.
They’re both 18 years old and on Wednesday afternoon, they’re staffing a mobile pop-up store in the parking lot of D.C.’s Union Market during its highly-trafficked lunch hour. On this bright afternoon, they are deft business owners, setting up and breaking down the merchandise, attracting clients, selling the goods.
They’re also both intellectually disabled.
The handcrafted items they sell, a rainbow assortment of jewelry, glass tableware and silk scarves, are made and often designed by other adults with learning disabilities. The St. Coletta Shops is a six-year-old program within the larger St. Coletta of Greater Washington, a 56-year-old nonprofit that serves 478 mostly low-income children and adults with intellectual disabilities.
They operate brick-and-mortar shops in Alexandria, Arlington and Rockville as well as an online store. The St. Coletta Shops Fashion Truck was new this summer, a way to draw more exposure and get the student workers out in the community.
Freeman, sporting Betty Boop dangling earrings and a gray T-shirt emblazoned with Disney princesses in eyeglasses, spiritedly passes out the flyers and encourages lunch-goers to shop.
“Do you want to buy anything?” she asks passersby. Once inside the truck, she takes customers on the short tour of the wares on display, picking up an item, describing it, trying to make the hard sell. If she senses disinterest she’ll turn to the next item. “This one is a good piece if you want to buy it,” she says, holding a multi-colored beaded necklace between her fingers.
When she closes a sale, she says, “it feels good.”
The retail experience would not be afforded to Bland and Freeman by most traditional businesses. It still requires supervision and patience, and as Rebecca Hill, St. Coletta’s chief development officer notes, “most businesses aren’t charities.”
Just one-third of people with intellectual disabilities are employed – an unemployment rate more than twice the general population, according to a 2014 Gallup survey. The adults who make the items to be sold are paid for their work. For the students, like Bland and Freeman, it’s considered a training program where they are learning skills that could be transferable to future jobs, Hill said.
Through the shop they’re given independence. They learn hands-on vocational skills and practice everyday conversation. And the adults who craft the goods flex their creativity and unlock their own talents.
“It feels like a real job,” Hill said. “They’re really proud.”
Andrew Fay, on his lunch break from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, purchased earrings for his wife and daughter. His 16-year-old son has Down Syndrome and autism. When he saw the shop benefited the intellectually disabled, he wanted to do his small part to support it.
“Society does not really treat folks with these issues as well as it should,” he said.
He walked over to chat with Bland and Freeman, and showed them a picture of his son. He then asked to have a selfie with them to share with his family. “Say cheese,” he said. They smiled wide for the shot. Freeman reminded him to show it to his son.
Fay said his son thrives on such social interaction – it’s why he loves going door-to-door on Halloween – and yet most people just ignore and walk by people with disabilities.
“It gives them a smile,” he said, about spending a few minutes chatting with the teenage shopkeepers. “It’s all its about.”
Christie Taylor, a job coach for the organization, said she’s watched Bland and Freeman thrive since working at the shop. Just weeks ago, Bland would never come out to greet people, or even say hello. Freeman didn’t always understand personal space, and could push too hard. She’s gotten better at picking up on social cues.
And now, Taylor said, Bland approaches people unprompted.
He’s still shy, but his eyes are bright and friendly. When asked what he likes best about the shop, he smiles and says, “Work.”
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