Local Youth & young adult

Where community counts

From left, Emily, Debbie Horn, the executive director of Inclusion Connections, and Paulina work together to tie knots with fabric to create knotted dog toys. LEAVEN PHOTO BY KATHRYN WHITE

by Moira Cullings

OLATHE — PawsAbilities has taught Sam Charpentier how to interact with customers, manage a cash register and operate a sewing machine.

But the greatest gift it’s given him is a community — something that was previously lacking in his life.

“For my son, it has provided not only a place for him to go and work and have social activities, but it’s provided him with a community of friends,” said Jessie Charpentier, Sam’s mom.

PawsAbilities, a program of Inclusion Connections, has changed everything for Sam, a young adult with special needs.

Sam Charpentier works on flipping a bandana so it can be ironed and sewn closed. LEAVEN PHOTO BY KATHRYN WHITE

A graduate of St. James Academy and member of Holy Trinity Parish, both in Lenexa, Sam is an outgoing person with a big personality.

After high school, he craved a fun and supportive place to work.

“The last job Sam had, he was really excited about,” said his mother. “But they really just wanted him to come and have a list of duties, and then do the work but not interact with anyone.

“And that’s just not Sam.”

When Inclusion Connections came about, it was a perfect fit.

Clockwise from left, Anna, Ted, Kyle and Jack work on cutting out peanut butter-flavored, dog bone-shaped biscuits that smell so good they could be mistaken for peanut butter cookies. LEAVEN PHOTO BY KATHRYN WHITE

The organization was initially created by executive director Debbie Horn to provide a space for young people with special needs in the Kansas City metro to socialize.

Horn was motivated by her son Matthew.

“As he was approaching his senior year of high school, I could see that there were not any opportunities to participate in the community,” she said.

“Matthew wanted to work, have a social life and eventually live on his own,” she continued. “He needed help navigating all that, and so do all kids with a developmental [or] intellectual disability.”

From left, Paulina, Katie and Alexis take a break to welcome a four-legged furry customer. When canines step into the store, almost all the employees take a break to greet and welcome them with freshly made treats and lots of love. LEAVEN PHOTO BY KATHRYN WHITE

Inclusion Connections took its mission a step further when it created PawsAbilities, which provides skill-based training and job placement help for its members.

At the PawsAbilities store, located in Olathe, members like Sam create various dog products, including homemade treats and bandanas.

In the process, they learn to bake, sew, operate kitchen equipment and more.

“Students also work on soft skills,” said Horn, “such as how to get along with other employees, the importance of getting to work on time and appropriate work attire.”

Ted places a piece of dough cut into the shape of a dog bone on a baking sheet while Debbie Horn looks on. LEAVEN PHOTO BY KATHRYN WHITE

The program strives to place young adults with compatible jobs for the long term and offers transportation to and from their homes and workplaces.

Its capacity to provide transportation is expanding thanks to a recent grant Inclusion Connections received.

Jonathan Twidwell, president of the Inclusion Connections board of directors and parishioner at Holy Trinity in Lenexa, applied for the “Invest in Others” grant from Woodbury Financial Services.

The $10,000 the organization received will go toward the purchase of a vehicle for transportation purposes.

This year, Inclusion Connections provided more than 700 rides.

“It’s one more thing that we don’t have to fundraise for,” said Twidwell. “We can focus on growing PawsAbilities and the supportive living side of things.”

Matthew takes some time to play with Moose, a golden retriever who came in for treats and a holiday bandana. LEAVEN PHOTO BY KATHRYN WHITE

Inclusion Connections is currently in the initial stages of creating BelongKC, a supportive living community for individuals with special needs.

“Right now, it’s pretty difficult to find a spot other than a government-run group home or [living] with their parents,” said Twidwell. “There’s not a lot of supportive living here in Kansas City or really anywhere.”

Horn also stressed the significance of the expansion.

“The lack of safe, affordable housing is at a crisis level for young adults with disabilities,” she said.

Moose received an abundance of cuddles when he came in to shop at PawsAbilities in Olathe. LEAVEN PHOTO BY KATHRYN WHITE

The need is undeniably there.

This year, Inclusion Connections has served more than 100 people in the Kansas City metro, with 38 of those currently employed, said Horn.

For the Charpentiers, it’s been a breath of fresh air.

“I think the biggest thing for Sam is having this community — a safe and loving community,” said Jessie Charpentier.

“And it is also faith-filled,” she added. “They’re not afraid to talk about Jesus there or play Christian music.

“It’s an amazing place. I feel very blessed that we’re part of it.”

Check out all the ‘pawsabilities’

If you’re interested in volunteering or purchasing PawsAbilities products, visit the website at: pawskc.org.

Customers can also shop at the store, located at 2073 E. Santa Fe in Olathe. Products are also sold at other retail outlets. Visit the website for specific locations.

Inclusion Connections is in need of volunteers and board members who can help the organization build its BelongKC campus. To learn how you can get involved, go online to: ickc.org.

FashionAbility Gala

The FashionAbility Gala, Inclusion Connections’ annual fundraiser, will be held on Feb. 19, 2022, at the Embassy Suites in Olathe. The evening will include a silent auction, dinner, a fashion show and a live performance by Inclusion Connections members. Those interested can also bid on items virtually. For more information, visit the website at: galakc.org.

About the author

Moira Cullings

Moira attended St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park and Benedictine College in Atchison. She majored in marketing, minored in psychology and played center midfield for the women’s soccer team. Moira joined The Leaven staff as a feature writer and social media editor in 2015. After a move to Denver, Moira resumed her full-time position at The Leaven and continues to write and manage the website, social media channels and Archbishop Naumann's Facebook page. Her favorite assignment was traveling to the Holy Land to take photos for a group pilgrimage in 2019.

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