Setting Up to Succeed
Local Support for Young Adults with Disabilities
Woofgang employee Gwen Smith works her shift with owners Kris Burbank,Kelly Maffei, Amy Stern, and her pup Winnie.
Photo Stan Godlewski
On a recent sunny afternoon, 18-year-old Gwen Smith arrived at the Woofgang & Co. shop in downtown Fairfield ready to get to work. The 2017 graduate of Fairfield Warde High School smiled while greeting customers and putting on her shop apron. “When I see people coming in, I introduce myself and I tell them what Woofgang is all about,” she says. “It helps me to communicate and be social.”
And, in fact, Woofgang & Co. is helping Gwen. Located at 1300 Post Road, the shop is the retail arm of a new nonprofit business providing employment opportunities for young adults with disabilities in the Fairfield area. It’s one of many local initiatives in town that’s focused on their needs, including Best Buddies, a national club with thriving chapters at Fairfield Ludlowe and Fairfield Warde High Schools, and Friendship Circle, run through Chabad, a Jewish organization with a location in Fairfield. All three empower those with disabilities, providing them with guidance, support, and training, whether they are still students or transitioning to life in the “real world.”
Woofgang & Co. was founded by a group of Fairfield parents and others concerned about the limited vocational training and employment opportunities available to adults with disabilities post-high school and after the age of 21.
After doing extensive research and considering many different types of businesses, the group agreed on the Woofgang concept, which combines a retail store with a small batch dog biscuit bakery. In addition to their signature Pupper Nutter Pattie dog treats, which are produced by Woofgang employees in the kitchen of the Bigelow Center for Senior Activities in Fairfield and then packaged for sale, the store offers other dog themed and Fairfield related items.
Kris Burbank, a co-founder of Woofgang & Co., says that the business is “ideal because it can accommodate many different people. There so many jobs to be done, from behind-the-scenes baking, to working in retail.” Staff at Woofgang & Co. will learn how to run the business, from production to sales, and many will become proficient with an adaptive point of sale system that could extend to their employment at other stores in the future. “We get these kids in this environment where they just shine,” says Burbank. “We set them up to succeed.”
Unlike traditional social service agencies, Woofgang & Co. does not have any government funding. Rather, community partnerships will be key to the success of the business, as well as grants and other contributions.
“We’re really all about building community partnerships,” says co-founder Amy Stern, who is also the mother of five children, including one adult son with Down Syndrome. “Once people in the community understand the challenge, it’s truly inspiring how eager they are to partner with us and become part of the solution.”
“Why not have this happen here?” says co-founder Kelly Maffei. “One of the things we love the best about Woofgang & Co. is that we’re also offering a service to the special needs parents, too, because finally they can do something proactive for their kids.”
Over at Fairfield Ludlowe and Fairfield Warde High Schools, chapters of Best Buddies, an international nonprofit organization benefitting those with disabilities, have formed to an overwhelmingly positive response.
Some 150 high schoolers in Fairfield have signed on to participate in the clubs, which “removes the barriers that exist between typical students and those with disabilities through one-to-one friendships,” according to Sarah Sykes and Amy Bien, teachers and advisors to the club at Fairfield Warde. “We aim to take students who have a rather small world, giving them connections and relationships that allow this world to grow.”
Because the interest level is high, the Fairfield Warde group created “Buddy Families” involving a larger group of club members. Best Buddies members take part in fun activities and fundraisers throughout the school year. Fairfield Ludlowe advisor Elizabeth Kennedy says that the club has “more than exceeded my expectations.”
The Friendship Circle program facilitated through Chabad also has opportunities for young adults with disabilities. The program brings together teenage volunteers and their peers with special needs for activities involving fun and camaraderie. Friendship Circle representative Sarah Lipsker notes that all involved have benefitted, as many volunteers ultimately decide on careers in behavioral and occupational therapies as a result of their experiences in the program.