Building Job Skills for Young Adults with Down Syndrome

When Paula Schiedler and Tammy Pebley’s daughters graduated from high school, they faced a unique challenge. Since their daughters, Hannah and Megan, have Down syndrome, Paula and Tammy knew that their transition into adulthood would be challenging—as only 18.7 percent of people with a disability are employed. They wanted to find a meaningful, skill-building way for their daughters to grow and get involved in their communities. “Unless your young adult is very high-functioning, the opportunity for a college degree is rare,” says Paula, a promotional products consultant at 3Point Brand Management in Tigard, Oregon. “Seeing this day coming for our daughters, we decided to start our own business.”

“I’ve been working at WAG-Able”

That business is WAG-Able, a dog biscuit brand founded in January of 2018. WAG-Able’s parent company WAG (which stands for Where Ability Grows) is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that provides work training to young adults with developmental disabilities in the greater Portland area. “The object is to teach sustainable, transferable job skills,” says Paula. “If they’re looking for some kind of sales job or restaurant work and the interviewer asks, ‘Do you have experience?’ they can reply, ‘I’ve been working at WAG-Able.’”

Employees of WAG-Able get a firsthand look at what happens in the day-to-day life of a small business. They help prep and mix the dough, stamp and bake biscuits, package and box finished goods, and then sell those products to customers at the local farmers’ market. “We’re very big proponents of getting the interns out in public,” says Paula. “They have a sense of pride knowing they played a large part in the production of this product. I think it teaches a lot about life and completing a task from beginning to end.”

The importance of the uniform

When she decided to print the WAG-Able logo on aprons, tees, and hats from SanMar, Paula saw her employees embracing their work even more than before. “They’re so proud,” she says. “When they put on that uniform, they turn very serious and know that they are official.

Paula says running WAG-Able has been an incredibly rewarding experience for her, too. “First and foremost, we wanted to do good,” she says. “We wanted WAG-Able to be something that was fulfilling for the interns —to give them job skills, a sense of pride, improved communication, and the ability to be part of a team.” It’s this sense of belonging that Paula thinks has made such a huge impact on her employees’ lives. “They’re so good about switching out jobs with one another; they want to learn each facet of the business,” she says. “I have such an appreciation for how well they work together and how hard they work. They are amazing people—we really just have to give them a chance.”

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