Consider us a fan of Inclusion Connections—a nonprofit based in Olathe that serves individuals with developmental disabilities. They’ve come up with an innovative, buzzworthy, local program—PawsAbilities—that offers young adults the chance to learn skills training in a variety of pet-friendly fields. From baking dog treats to sewing dog bandanas to handcrafting pet-related products, it’s a hands-on learning environment. Even better? The organization has a retail store in Olathe in addition to a mobile store that’s out and about in the community. We touched base with Laura Uzzell, the director of development, to find out more about this unique program.
How did it PawsAbilities come to fruition—and who came up with the cute name?
Our executive director, Debbie Horn, has a 23-year old son, Matthew, who has Down syndrome. She has been intimately involved with services available for him since his birth, including working with the Down Syndrome Guild of Kansas City and Olathe schools. As Matthew got older, she discovered that although he was very popular in school and the kids really enjoyed being around him, it simply didn’t translate into after-school friendships or activities. She could see the unhappiness this caused Matthew, as he watched his brothers getting calls from kids to do things. He always asked her, ‘What about me, Mom?’ That’s how Inclusion Connections was born in 2013.
Our employment program was implemented in 2017. Debbie believed translatable job skills could be attained by making dog treats and other pet-related products. The product name “PawsAbilities” was selected because it succinctly connected our mission with our participants’ love for dogs!
What sort of success have you seen?
PawsAbilities’ employment program is the best evidence of our success. We currently support over 60 young adults who are learning job skills by making dog treats in our bakery, sewing dog bandanas, and handcrafting other products. They help run our Olathe pet boutique and attend local events and businesses with the Paws Mobile Store. We now have participants working at 27 paid, community-based jobs!
Meanwhile, our annual Gala FashionAbility—now a fixture in Johnson County events—sells out every February and shines the light on the hopes, dreams, and job aspirations of our participants.
What’s in your current product line?
Peanut butter dog treats are our best-sellers. Royals, Chiefs, and other festive dog bandanas are super popular. We just introduced a new line of hats, with plans for new pillows and t-shirts, too!
How are you making a difference?
Fewer than a third of individuals with developmental disabilities are employed—and that’s unacceptable! Inclusion Connections is working hard in Johnson County to make community-based jobs successful longer-term, creating a tangible difference in the lives of our amazing participants. Next on the horizon: we have invited a coalition of local nonprofits who serve our population to explore the feasibility of a Johnson County independent living project.
What can folks do to help support you?
Love your dog, love our people! Businesses can help by inviting the PawsAbilities Mobile Store to their workplace! Individuals can become volunteers and support us financially. Shop for PawsAbilities products online at PawsKC.org, and at local businesses including Hallmark stores, KC events, and veterinarian offices. And be sure to attend our dog- and family-friendly Puppy Parade event on September 21.