When Angie Gamades worked as a special education teacher at Chaska High School, she often baked with her students with autism and other intellectual disabilities. They found the meticulous, repetitious work soothing.
The students loved it so much that years later, they would call up Gamades and invite her to bake with them. The teacher eventually realized that these young adults had an untapped talent. Here was a chance to create meaningful jobs, something which the vast majority of adults with autism are deprived.
After graduation, special ed students could go to district- or state-run programs that help them find work. The opportunities are competitive, but the jobs are often menial and underpaid.
Autistic adults are often paid according to how quickly a normal employee could do the same job. If a normal worker was paid 10 cents to package one box, and an autistic worker could only package10 boxes an hour, he or she would earn just $1 an hour.
So Gamades, now at Cedar Ridge Elementary in Eden Prairie, teamed up with fellow teacher Kyle Gallus of Hillcrest Community School in Bloomington to rent a commercial kitchen in Chaska. They hired six former students to bake dog treats two nights a week in return for a full hourly wage. Finley’s Barkery was born.
“A lot of our employees do janitorial or packaging work during the day, and that doesn’t really inspire them,” Gallus says. “They look forward to coming into the kitchen so they can talk and sing while we bake. It’s one thing to just have a job. It’s another thing to feel truly a part of something. No employee should feel like you just show up to work, and you move on at 3 o’clock.”
So far Finley’s Barkery doesn’t have a brick and mortar store, just a website. But the teachers believe it’s now time to bring their employees into the public, where they can hawk their product to dog owners face-to-face. They’ve begun crowdfunding for a “Bark Truck,” which will transport employees and treats to food truck events, adoption events, dog parks, and breweries across the Twin Cities.
The hope is to get their employees, who have various degrees of social and sensory anxiety, to practice being among people and community activity.
“Not every employee is comfortable going out into the public and selling treats,” Gallus says. “What we’ve found is with the right setting, with the right coaching, our employees can do sales just as well as you or I.”
This past summer, he says, a young woman who was deathly afraid of dogs wanted to try selling treats at a dog event. She was able, after the second or third event, to come out from behind the table and begin handing out samples. Now she’s comfortable telling people what’s in the treats, where they’re made, how much they cost.