The back room of PawsAbilities in Olathe is a busy one. A mixer whirls while an automatic dough roller contributes more noise. Above all of it is a lively conversation about everything from movies to animals as participants cut out dough destined for dog treats.
The program is part of Inclusion Connections, a nonprofit that helps young adults with developmental disabilities.
Although the organization has been around for four years, its PawsAbilities program is relatively new.
Participants like Caroline McVay of Leawood learn to bake dog treats in a commercial kitchen setting, sew bandanas and make toys out of old fire hoses and other recycled materials.
“We do fun baking stuff here,” McVay said. “If you like pets and like to bake, we have a great spot here.”
They sell their products at their Olathe store, 2073 E. Santa Fe St., as well as at farmers’ markets, local veterinarians’ offices, dog daycare centers and the occasional special event.
Initially, they started off in a smaller space with just a used oven and some bowls, but, as PawsAbilities became successful, the program invested in professional kitchen equipment and a larger workspace.
Eight to 10 participants work on any given day. Although there is a fee for participants, Inclusion Connections awards scholarships for those who need help in that regard.
On a recent Monday afternoon, they were busily baking treats shaped like bones, gingerbread men and ornaments.
The real key is that the program teaches participants job skills that they can transfer to a workplace.
“We work with occupational-therapy students to pick up treats without smashing them and other physical tasks,” said Jen Beruan, program coordinator for PawsAbilities.
Some already have part-time jobs, but, when a person has a developmental disability, it can take a lot of repetition for them to learn a skill. PawsAbilities offers them the time to practice using commercial kitchen equipment and sewing machines.
“We’re set up like a real bakery so that it becomes second nature,” she said. “We have a population who are wonderful employees if given a chance.”
Some participants have moved on to learning to work the cash register and serve the customers who come to the PawsAbilities store. They role play with each other, taking turns playing customers and employees so that they’re ready.
Beruan wants more participants to join them at PawsAbilities. New arrivals go through a job-interview process, mostly for the experience. They don’t turn many people away.
PawsAbilities welcomes adults 18 to 30 with developmental disabilities who do not require individual supervision. Those who need close supervision can participate if someone comes with them to provide that support.
Currently, about 25 people currently take part in the program.
Deb Horn started Inclusion Connections four years ago when she saw a need for more programming for people with developmental disabilities in their 20s, like her son, Matthew.
“He wants to be active. ... They need social opportunities desperately,” Horn said. “They really are hard workers, and it’s amazing what they can learn.”
Beruan echoed Horn’s sentiment.
“Everyone wants a community,” Beruan said. “Everyone wants to be around people who understand them.”
It doesn’t take too much to get participants excited about their products.
“Our participants love animals,” Beruan said. “That was a big draw.”
Inclusion Connections functions solely on money from fundraising and grants. It receives no government funding. They also partner with various schools and organizations in the community who bring volunteers and volunteer projects to them.
A local fashion student was the one who gave them the idea to add dog bandanas to their product line. Students at Olathe East High School also have been helping develop tools for PawsAbilities to use.
Volunteers can also just be there to interact with participants and have a nice time with them.
PawsAbilities is open Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
For more information on PawsAbilities, visit www.ickc.org/ic-pawsabilities.