For a special needs kid, the transition into adulthood can be overwhelming. They no longer have the structure of school, and are often overlooked by employers. But one North Texas family refused to let any of that affect their son. Instead, they came up with their own solution. It’s giving other families hope, and other employers ideas.
Frank and Christine Goeyvarts knew something was different about their son Frankie before he was even walking. Once they realized he was autistic, they tailored their entire life to his upbringing. But when he graduated from high school, they knew Frankie wasn’t meant for college. They also felt like the jobs available to him weren't enough. So they moved from their home in California, all the way to Texas, where they thought they'd have a better chance at opening a business.
At Bridget's Pet Resort in Colleyville, Frankie makes it a point to learn every dogs name. When he kneels, they all gather around him. When he sits, they fight for space on his lap. At 18, he got the job of his dreams: full time dog watcher, with the possibility of becoming a manager. He says his prospects didn't always look so good.
"Well, I was a little nervous about graduating at first. I mean, but then I just realized that I'm gonna be working I’m going to have a job. Everyone has to have a job so they can make a living."
Making a living is exactly what Frankie’s parents were the most worried about. While they knew their youngest son Jacob would always take care of his brother Frankie, they wanted Frankie to be able to take care of himself.
Christine Goeyvarts says wondering what would happen to her son, if anything ever happened to her or her husband, would keep her up at night.
"It seemed like it was tough for people with disabilities to getting meaningful employment. That's a big thing, it's not stocking shelves-not to put that down. Here it's important that they show up. That dog needs to be fed, it needs to be watered, it needs to be walked and it's an urgency," said Christine.
In addition to their son Frankie, Christine and her husband Frank recruited and employ four special needs employees at their business called Bridget’s Pet Resort. All employees are responsible for all the day to day tasks, including the ones no one really wants to do, like cleaning up after the dogs.
"They seem to know what they're doing and they manage it really well," said Frank.
His wife agrees, saying, "dogs don't care if you're awkward, that's a mainstay of autism right? They're awkward… and the dogs just don't care about any of that."
Bridget's Dog Resort is one of a growing number of businesses in North Texas recognizing the contributions of special needs employees.
In Colleyville, grocery store Market Street employs them to bag and transport groceries. At Chili's in Euless, they roll the cutlery. At an office supply store in Euless, a manager reported that a single employee with Downs Syndrome greeting customers at the door changed the culture of the business. The manager told Paula Baker, the program director with SNAP or Special Needs Assistance Partners, "I'm finding that our customers are feeling warmer and friendlier about our store... at an office supply store! Who would think people would feel warm and friendly about an office supply store!"
Baker says her organization finds job opportunities for people with developmental or intellectual disabilities. Once a month, SNAP holds a meeting where those that have jobs encourage those that are looking. While parents can attend, special needs employees and those that are looking for work are the only ones who speak. If an employer has a problem, or a job description changes, SNAP retrains them. The group is a non-profit started by parents.
"Gone are the days of trying to hide sons and daughters who are not typical and normal, whatever normal is. Instead of giving them *any* job, and just being glad they got any job at all, we feel like we want it to be a win-win situation for the employer as well as the intern," said Baker.
In order to open Bridget’s Pet Resort, Christine and Frank cashed in all of their retirement savings. They have no regrets, and are trying not to put any pressure on either of their sons to keep the business running.
When asked if a customer has ever left after realizing the staff is predominantly special needs, Christine said, "yes, we've had customer say well-- will there be a regular adult person in here managing these things? We've had a couple of people walk away, and that's ok. We have a purpose, we have a mission and it's not just taking care of dogs- it is also employing people with autism in a meaningful position."
For Frankie, the job offers him an independence he's never had before. His parents hope that the dogs he cares for, will ultimately take care of him.
SNAP stresses that they are not a conveyor belt job placement organization. Whether it’s an employer that approaches them with a position, or a family looking for help, they tailor every job to the candidates abilities.
If you'd like more information on the job opportunities or internships SNAP helps coordinate, or if you'd like to see the social activities and other programs they offer to enhance a special needs person’s life- click here.