THOnline.com ( Telegraph Herald-Dubuque) Article:
Posted: Sunday, July 12, 2015 12:00 am | Updated: 12:11 pm, Sun Jul 12, 2015.
BY AUDREY INGRAM | AUDREY.INGRAM@THMEDIA.COM
BELLEVUE, Iowa — Business is just starting to heat up for a Bellevue entrepreneur with autism.
Daniel Toops, 19, recently launched his own company with help from family, teachers and area residents. The budding businessman builds firestarter kits for campfires, home fireplaces, backyard fire pits and grills.
Daniel’s products are sold at tri-state campgrounds and on the shelves of a dozen Theisen’s stores from Indianola, Iowa, to Sparta, Wis. The Dubuque-based retail chain sold 75 percent of its initial order in the first five weeks.
There clearly is demand for the product, said Kochell Ricklefs, a business development specialist with Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services’ Iowa Self-Employment Program. As well as providing steady employment for Daniel, JT Firestarters could also one day enable him to hire peers with disabilities on their own path to self-sufficiency, she said.
A Google search by Daniel’s mother, Katherine Toops, sparked the initial business concept.
Autism is characterized by struggles to communicate, interact socially and develop relationships. Some individuals, like Daniel, are completely nonverbal.
Daniel’s autism is compounded by obsessive compulsive disorder, Katherine explained. The combination makes it infeasible for her son to find employment in a traditional work setting.
Katerine found a craft tutorial page that featured a firestarter kit. Daniel communicates primarily through pictures, so she made a prototype kit herself and photographed each step.
The kits contain four materials — lint, cardboard egg cartons, shredded paper and candle wax — many of which are currently donated and recycled. The lint, for example, comes from Mercy Medical Center-Dubuque.
Katherine’s goal was to help Daniel learn a skill, and she assumed he would give away the kits, she said. But Daniel’s teachers at Hempstead High School took the project to the next level.
Teacher Kevin Kapparos and paraprofessionals Mike Edmonds and Michael Von Hollen reached out to area businesses to donate materials and sell the product.
Theisen’s jumped on board quickly, as the story behind the product fit the Dubuque-based company’s “philosophy of supporting our community and giving back,” Theisen’s buyer Tim Krom said via email.
“This is how special education is supposed to work — a collaborative effort between home, school and community,” Katherine said. “I wish I could say it was the typical way things happen, but I don’t think it is. These people are role models.”
Kapparos has been teaching structured classes for students with autism at Hempstead for two years. Daniel is one of the first three of his roughly 15 students to complete his graduation requirements, and the first to successfully launch a business, he said.
The process has been a learning experience for the teachers as well, who connected with agencies such as Vocational Rehabilitation Services that can provide consultations and financial assistance — up to $20,000 worth — for their students, he said.
“Looking down the road, there are concerns that there won’t be funding for sheltered workshops” that traditionally employ individuals with disabilities, Kapparos said. “We wanted to find something he could do out of his apartment if he had too.”
Ricklefs, Daniel’s consultant through the Iowa Self-Employment Program, currently serves 72 clients across the eastern half of Iowa. She will continue to work with him for two years after Iowa Vocational Resources Services closes his file as a success.
“We look at the feasibility for long term self-sufficiency — not just employment band-aids,” Ricklefs said.
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Daniel Toops, a man with autism, created JT Firestarters as a way to earn money and gain independence. This Man With Autism’s Creation Sparks a Hot Business. Daniel Toops, 21, is nonverbal and on the autism spectrum. Toops started JT Firestarters in 2015 as a way to earn money and gain independence. JT Firestarters are an easy and inexpensive way to start a fire. Toops runs all aspects of JT Firestarters with the help of his team. Toops makes the firestarters by hand using recycled materials. Materials include cardboard egg cartons, shredded paper, drying lint and candle wax. Toops’ local community in Bellevue, Iowa helps out by donating supplies. Firestarters are sold in 70 stores across IA, IL, KY, MN and WI. The company hopes to hire more people with disabilities as they grow.
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WQAD 8 Quad Cities:
News Story: Iowa man with autism finds independence through entrepreneurship