Hobby turns into successful business for special needs teens and adults

Friday, August 22, 2014
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A teen with autism found a talent for leather work, and that hobby has turned into much more

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- More than 3.5 million Americans live with some form of autism. The most common challenges associated with this disorder are social communication and interaction. So, when Denise Hazen wanted to find an activity to help her autistic teenage son, Nicholas, she kept striking out until a leather maker was willing to take the time to help.

Since learning how to craft with leather, Hazen has witnessed her son's confidence blossom, and what was once a hobby has become a business benefiting many.

"Nicholas has had an amazing teacher who noticed when he was about 11 that he had a special gift and that was, he has a special eye for precision," says Hazen of her son.

So much so, that when they started making leather bracelets, she quickly came up with a nickname for him. "He's definitely my quality control. He's always telling me, 'No mom, that's not perfect.'"

That precision and dedication to the product is what helped this activity transform into the business, Aspire Accessories. The transformation Hazen noticed most, though, was in her son's behavior.

"All of a sudden, there was a sense of accomplishment, and that's what I noticed with Nicholas at first. When our business started exploding and people were coming to us with orders of 200 and 300, I went to his teacher and asked, 'Do you think his classmates could be helpers?'"

After the class's first bracelet-making session, she knew she was onto something. This type of process worked well for autistic adults.

"It's a tactile thing, and it's steps. I think that's really important. You start at number one and you go to number 10. It's predictable. And that's another thing that's important for this group of young people. They like routine."

She saw their confidence boost. "They did this. They're important. They're valuable members of our society."

Soon, this group started making bracelets in bulk for schools, charities, and businesses. "We benefit when they buy from us wholesale, and then they benefit when they sell them. It's a win, win situation."

Today, Aspire Accessories has partnered with the Brookwood community. This community has 200 adult members with special needs, and every one of them has a job.

"Because we don't take a dime of government money, we totally rely on our enterprises by our 200 citizens with special needs who work here," says Vivian Shudde.

These bracelets will be added to the many gifts, foods, and art that are sold in the gift shop at Brookwood, and the proceeds go right back into helping these individuals lead productive lives.

Shudde adds, "All people want purpose, and we have found an incredible purpose and our citizens have found that purpose in their jobs."

Mattress Mack just donated a 6,000 square foot workshop out of his Gallery Furniture located on the Grand Parkway. And the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo just made a huge order. The group is now making ponchos, key chains, flasks, and even handbags.