Written by our Founder and CEO, our Celebrations Pulse letters aim to engage with our community. By welcoming your ideas and sharing your stories, we want to help you strengthen your relationships with the most important people in your life.
Growing up, I was blessed to live in a family with five brothers and sisters. The greatest blessing of all was Kevin, who was born with a developmental disability and taught me and my siblings countless lessons about life, relationships, and how to treat people different from ourselves.
Some of my earliest memories involve how my parents – who were by no means wealthy – made sure that Kevin was included in all family activities. They pulled together what resources they had to rent spaces where they invited other parents who had children with disabilities. Everyone enjoyed socializing in a judgment-free zone.
Back then, the rest of the community was far from “judgment free.” It would be decades before legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act began to level the playing field for people like Kevin in terms of employment, transportation, and public accommodations.
I often think about my parents and how they were kept awake at night wondering what would happen to Kevin after they were gone. At the time, it was common for people with developmental disabilities to be institutionalized and treated inhumanely. (This only began to change in the 1970s after investigative reporter Geraldo Rivera exposed the wretched conditions at New York’s Willowbrook facility.)
I wish my parents could see Kevin today. He lives with friends in a supportive home near our family and attends – actually, is the star of – family birthdays, anniversaries, dance recitals, and all other family activities. Most of all, I wish Mom and Dad could see how they and Kevin inspired the whole family to do what we can to help people of all abilities lead happy and meaningful lives.
Opportunity for everyone
Today marks the start of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which is a time to celebrate the contributions of people with disabilities in the workforce – and reflect on how we can do more to provide opportunities to those who are differently abled.
Why is work important? The answers are the same for everyone: Besides income, a job teaches us new skills, offers lessons in responsibility, and helps us build relationships beyond family and immediate friends. Work is key to living a life of dignity.
That’s why in 2015, my family and I helped start Smile Farms, a non-profit organization that provides meaningful work training and opportunities for adults with disabilities.
And it all started with Kevin and a phone call from Walter Stockton, who ran IGHL, the home where Kevin lives. Walter thought IGHL and 1-800-Flowers.com could work together to train residents in horticulture, giving them important and marketable work skills and a source of employment. (You can learn more about the history of Smile Farms and my partnership with Walter in this week’s Celebrations Chatter podcast.)
Fast forward many years, the program that would become Smile Farms has blossomed across the New York metro area. Smile Farmers now grow peppers that they also bottle and sell under the “Heat with Heart” brand (with label artwork created by people with disabilities). They’re also growing other vegetables and making pickles, selling them at local farmers markets. And, in a natural progression, Smile Farms is working with local restaurants to create job opportunities in hospitality.
Fostering a more inclusive workplace
My experience growing up with Kevin has influenced me in other ways. At every opportunity, I ask how we as a company can be more inclusive of people with disabilities. It’s one of the reasons we work with organizations like the Fuse Network, an Ohio organization that partners with local businesses (like our distribution facility in Hebron) to find employment for people with developmental disabilities.
On a recent visit, I met Mikey, a seasonal associate who has been returning to the job every year since 2013. He was grateful for having the opportunity; I was more than grateful for the excellent work he does in our gift-packaging operations.
Remembering all that my parents did for Kevin and the community, we try to create a workplace that is welcoming to all families, including those with children with disabilities. Every April for Bring Your Child to Work Day, our HR department partners with Smile Farms to organize activities just for children with special needs.
Shortly after this year’s event, I received a letter from Eric in our technology department. His two sons, Mylo and Izzy, are on the autism spectrum and both have participated in recent Bring Your Child to Work Day events. Eric let me know how much it means to the family that everyone is included.
“You all have opened your arms and hearts to my boys, and I see it. I appreciate it. I am truly touched by the acceptance and love you all have shown to my boys. And your teams generate that positivity as well, and it is amazing to see how much they all care.”
Eric also shared that his son Mylo has found a passion in photography, and his work has been featured in newspapers, libraries, and art galleries across New York. He’s also received recognition on social media from executives from Disney, Lego, Play-Doh, and Mattel. Eric sent me and my team several signed photos that we will all cherish for the rest of our lives.
How you can help
The simplest way to make a difference is to buy from companies and organizations like Smile Farms, which support or are even run by people with disabilities. The 1-800-Flowers.com Marketplace is also proud to team up with these organizations:
John’s Crazy Socks
Co-founded by Mark X. Cronin and his son, John Lee Cronin, a young man with Down syndrome, the company was inspired by John’s love of fun, colorful socks, or what he calls his “crazy socks.” The father-and-son team started the company seven years ago as a social enterprise with a mission of “spreading happiness.”
After high school, Collette Divitto, who was born with Down syndrome, sought employment, but after going on numerous job interviews, and not being able to find work, she decided to start her own business baking cookies.
One For All Gifts
A company that features a range of items – from artwork to jewelry to pottery – made exclusively by neurodiverse entrepreneurs and social enterprises actively employing differently abled adults. Sean DeMarco, a young man on the autism spectrum, and his mother, Theresa DeMarco started the company three years ago this month.
These entrepreneurs show the world the power of people with disabilities, while also raising money for and awareness of their businesses. I hope this letter inspires you to reach out, connect with, and support people who are differently abled in your community.
All the best,