More individuals with developmental disabilities own, operate businesses

Fargo - Pride beams from Jay Sorum’s face when he talks about Jay’s Candy Creations.

“It’s my business,” he said.

Creating, selling and delivering the candy bouquets allows Sorum to be creative and work when he wants, said Dori Leslie, vice president of CHI Friendship, a nonprofit that supports people with intellectual and other disabilities, including Sorum.

The responsibility and creativity are a good fit for Sorum, who previously worked in a sheltered workshop and later at McDonald’s.

“I’m a happy camper,” said Sorum.

About five years ago, CHI Friendship staff began hearing about self-employment at national conferences. The organization wanted to be a pioneer in the field, Leslie said.

Nearly 30 of the people CHI Friendship assists now own their own business.

Several operate a vending business, such as pop machines or candy dispensers. Some offer services, like lawn care or dog walking. Others, like Sorum, have creative pursuits, making notecards, dry soup mixes, jewelry or decorating planters.

A small table in the hallway of CHI Friendship’s south Fargo offices displays some of the business ventures. All of the vending machines there are operated by people CHI Friendship supports.

It’s the view of CHI Friendship that all people of working age in America should work regardless of ability, Leslie said. The organization works to customize that employment experience. “We want everybody to like their job,” she said.

While many of the people they support hold jobs in retail, food service, janitorial or other fields, not every person wants to work for someone else, or hold a traditional 8-to-5 job, Leslie said.

“It gives them an opportunity to have a job that they can start and build confidence with themselves,” Leslie said about people with developmental disabilities owning their own businesses.

Through trial and error, they can see what works for them. They can change direction, Leslie said.

They also face the same challenges of any small-business owner: ongoing marketing, keeping product in stock, paperwork and taxes.

According to statistics compiled by the Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, 5.6 percent of self-employed people are disabled, though it’s not clear how many would have a developmental disability. Census survey data showed about 0.7 percent of business owners receive disability payments.

Barbara Murry, executive director of the North Dakota Association of Community Providers, which includes 29 service providers across the state, said encouraging entrepreneurship among the developmentally disabled is a national trend, one encouraged by advocates, family members and the federal government.

Murry said the Department of Justice has filed suits in several states for not providing enough community-based work opportunities. One way to provide that sort of integration into the community is entrepreneurship, she said.

While providers have traditionally turned to existing businesses for employment opportunities first, “we’re being urged to be more creative on people’s behalf to help set (microbusinesses) up,” Murry said.

HAV-IT Services in Harvey, N.D., which serves 32 individuals with disabilities, helped Cera Svaleson start her own welcome wagon business, said Tim Huseth, executive director.

Local businesses pay an annual fee to be represented in the gift bag she gives to new residents. A staff person helped Svaleson meet with the local chamber, businesses and apartment complexes.

“She came to mind because she has such a pleasant personality, a smile,” Huseth said. “I think the part she likes best is visiting new people, bringing them the gift and welcoming them to Harvey.”

CHI Friendship serves 250 people in Fargo, Grafton and Park River, N.D., Leslie said. It manages group homes and also offers assistance to people in their own homes. Its 400 staff members assist the individuals they help with daily tasks and support them in the workplace or with their own businesses.

Maya Steen, a direct support professional, helps Sorum make his shopping list, takes him to the store and helps him assemble the bouquets. Steen said the idea for the business started after seeing candy bouquets in a local grocery store’s floral department.

“It’s become quite a hit,” she said.

Jay’s Candy Creations is a member of the Pride of Dakota. Sorum sells them at vendor shows as well as online.

“Jay likes people. People like him,” said Rebekah Schultz, a qualified developmental disabilities professional. “When he goes to shows, he’s a good salesman.”