This guest post is by Katherine and Daniel Toops, Owners of JT FireStarters. Katherine and Daniel are applying for our Supporting Small Businesses That Hire People With Disabilities Grant Opportunity ran by my nonprofit KFM Making A Difference. You can learn more about the grant opportunity here.
I hope you can support my nonprofit like I’m trying to support our community. I also produce educational videos to celebrate neurodiversity by spotlighting individuals impacted by a diagnosis. Learn more on how you can help our cause with a small donation (just asking for $3 today, equal to your daily cup of coffee) here.
My name is Katherine Toops, and I am the mother of Daniel Toops. Daniel is nonverbal, so I will be sharing his story. JT FireStarters became an official business in 2015 when Daniel was a sophomore in High School in Dubuque, Iowa. The IEP team was struggling to find a job placement for Daniel. Daniel has autism, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and is nonverbal. At that time, Daniel was struggling with OCD, and we knew it would be challenging to find a placement in the community where he could be successful.
We never gave up on the hope and dream that Daniel needed to be a part of the workforce, so we had to think outside of the box and be creative. This meant we researched continually and decided as a family we would have to create a space and place for Daniel to achieve meaningful employment. This venture also grew into the possibility that our company could someday benefit others just like Daniel. During the summer of 2014, I created workstations for Daniel to complete. I printed picture cards to show the tasks and the steps involved to make items to sell. We tried out 3 different activities and found that making fire starters was the best fit for Daniel.
Daniel had a room at the school for production and the staff guided him through the production process. The best gift ever occurred when the high school teachers and paraprofessionals contacted Theisen’s, a local store with 22 outlets in the Midwest about selling JT FireStarters in their stores. Theisen’s became Daniel’s first outlet and his biggest supporters.
JT FireStarters has gradually increased business over the past 5 years. At this time, Daniel is the only employee. My husband and I are both teachers and we work full time. We manage the advertising, ordering, invoicing and deliveries after school and on weekends. We had to expand slowly so that we could meet the demand. Our greatest fear was that we would expand too quickly and not be able to fulfill orders.
This summer, two factors impacted sales. Theisen’s decided to sell JT FireStarters online and we dedicated ourselves to expanding sales in neighboring states. Both plans were successful, and sales doubled. Because of this, JT FireStarters is in the process of hiring a co-worker for Daniel.
The original intent was to hire a co-worker sooner, but Daniel has had to cope with barriers. The state of Iowa will only fund a job coach for 2.5 hours per day. This greatly limits Daniel’s ability to make enough product to keep up with sales. Fortunately, Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation assisted with additional funds to assist Daniel on a temporary basis.
The mission of JT FireStarters is to provide employment for others with autism. The work environment can be adapted to meet the needs of individuals with sensory needs. The future goals are to increase sales each year so that another co-worker can be hired each year.
JT FireStarters has been embraced by the community not only for the impact it has made in creating awareness of autism, but the materials used in our product include recycled items of cardboard egg cartons, lint, and melted candle or scent wax. Supporters are eager to save and repurpose these items into resourceful materials that are the staple for our product. Our greatest joy is when people share the photos of their campfire using our product. It makes us happy to know Daniel made an impact on their experience.
Our motto is “Start Something Good,” and with continued fiscal support and grant opportunities, JT FireStarters will be able to start something good for other individuals like Daniel for years to come.
Kerry Magro, a professional speaker and best-selling author who is also on the autism spectrum started the nonprofit KFM Making a Difference in 2011 to help students with autism receive scholarship aid to pursue a post-secondary education.
Have Kerry, one of the only professionally accredited speakers on the spectrum in the country, speak at your next event by sending him an inquiry here. If you have a referral for someone who many want him to speak please reach out as well! Kerry speaks with schools, businesses, government agencies, colleges, nonprofit organizations, parent groups and other special events on topics ranging from employment, how to succeed in college with a learning disability, internal communication, living with autism, bullying prevention, social media best practices, innovation, presentation best practices and much more!