St. Clair business employs only adults with special needs

Bryce Airgood
Port Huron Times Herald

St. Clair – Milinda Brewington sang along as “My Girl” by The Temptations played on the speakers, the light shining off her collection of necklaces as she worked preparing silverware.

Brewington said the work keeps her busy, which she likes. When asked what her favorite thing was about work, she said, “oh boy, a lot.”

“I like the people I work with,” she said.

Brewington is “straight up sunshine,” her twin sister, Michelle Zarza, told the Times Herald of Port Huron in a phone interview.

Brewington has Down syndrome and an understanding of what her time is worth. So working at a business employing individuals with special needs “suited Milinda perfectly,” her sister said.

“She really blossomed with Simply Silverware,” Zarza said.

Simply Silverware, which recently opened a storefront in St. Clair, only employs adults with special needs.

Jenn Gildenpfennig, the owner, said they wrap silverware, gifts and favors for weddings, showers, parties, birthdays and more. The business was already getting Easter orders in early March.

Gildenpfennig, Brewington and employee Patrick Myers sat and worked in the new space earlier this month.

Gildenpfennig made a small slip up and joked that Brewington should fire her.

“I’m not going to do that, you’re my boss,” Brewington laughed. “I don’t do that.”

“I’m your friend, remember?” Gildenpfennig said. “I can be your boss too, but I like to be your friend more than your boss.”

“You’re my friend and my boss,” Brewington conceded.

Gildenpfennig also works full time teaching for Macomb County Intermediate School District’s autism program. In 2013, she started rolling silverware in her classroom with high school kids so they could raise classroom funds, she said.

In 2017 she turned it into a business.

She ran it from a building on her home’s property for a while, then moved into Soaring Dreams, a nonprofit, donation-based resale shop that provides job training and creative opportunities for adults with special needs. But then she outgrew the location.

So when she drove past a sign that said the red barn at 2062 Fred W. Moore Highway was available to lease, and her husband Harold Gildenpfennig knew the owners, they reached out and got the space.

“So here we are,” Gildenpfennig said.

The business will host a grand opening celebration from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on May 29. There will be refreshments like hot dogs and pop and a clown will provide free entertainment and face painting. There will be some raffle prizes as well, Gildenpfennig said.

Gildenpfennig said the grand opening will be like a celebration of all the business’s successes.

Without the support of customers, clients, family and friends, the business wouldn’t be what it is today, she said.

Michigan services people with special needs through age 26 through the public-school system. After 26, there are some programs for people, but they don’t always fit their needs, so this is another option for them, Gildenpfennig said.

Many adults with autism spectrum disorder have a difficult time achieving employment, continued education and independent living, according to the 2017 National Autism Indicators Report: Developmental Disability Services and Outcomes in Adulthood.

The least common outcome for adults with autism spectrum disorder was paid, community-based employment, and only 14% held a paid job in the community. The amount of adults who did activities that focused on community involvement, like recreational or volunteer activities that were unpaid, was 42% and the amount of adults that had no work or activity was 27%, according to the report.

With Simply Silverware, Gildenpfennig has a way to give people on the autism spectrum a job that is beneficial for them, that’s repetitive and super easy, she said.

“I feel like making a difference and giving these guys a purpose is why I’m here,” she said.

In April, Brewington will have been officially working for Simply Silverware for three years, her sister said.

Before Simply Silverware, Brewington didn’t have a profession and had gone to various life skill groups and day care facilities. She would do menial tasks like making hangers for a penny, Zarza said.

The pay was based on how many items the person made, like how many tips on squirt bottles they put together. Brewington is competent and capable, but she likes to work her own pace, so she would only make maybe 10 items and her paycheck would only be worth a cup of coffee, her sister said.

Brewington’s first check from Simply Silverware for around nine hours of work was around $20, which was a big difference and let her use the money to go out to dinner. Brewington realized it was more beneficial and she could spend the money, Zarza said.

Brewington said she uses her paychecks to buy jewelry, clothes or purses. She sometimes buys games, movies or CDs and loves country music.

“This is what we fought for,” Zarza said. “This is what we’ve been looking for our whole lives.”

Both Zarza and their mother have advocated for Brewington, hoping to give her opportunities to be more independent.

Now she’s out in the big world doing “big kid things and living her own life,” the goal they’ve been pushing for their whole life, which gives them a “huge sense of accomplishment,” she said.

Zarza thinks a lot of people don’t understand and overlook this as something minor, like “oh well it’s just a job.”

But to them, even the little somethings can be something big, she said.

Gildenpfennig said she has four employees, soon to be five. Simply Silverware employees work two to three hours every other week, so about four to six hours a month.

“So it’s not a lot but it gives me the ability to help more than just one individual,” she said.

She makes sure families are comfortable with the employee’s hours and that the number of hours works with their social security benefits, she said.

She thinks people need to be patient with those with special needs and just because some individuals can’t talk doesn’t mean they can’t speak for themselves in other forms. Even the kids with the toughest diagnoses and behaviors still have a purpose.

“They still have personalities and they’re still important to society, no matter what society might think,” Gildenpfennig said.

Soaring Dreams CEO Vicki Helhowski, who took over the nonprofit in September, said there are few resources for people with special needs once they age out at 26.

There are people who are higher functioning and can get jobs in restaurants or in retail, and then there are those who need constant care, but for those kids in the middle, there’s really nothing, Helhowski said.

She said the community is trying to make more opportunities for those with special needs instead of having them sit at home, like Simply Silverware.

“I think it gives everybody a better education of special needs,” she said, that you don’t need to be intimidated by adults with special needs.

“You just have to find the right spot for them,” she said.

Zarza said there is still plenty more to push for, but this has been a great step in the right direction.

People with special needs want to be desired and want to have their own spot in the workplace.

And they can succeed, if they are given the space and support they need, she said.