by Ginger Broomes
Out of hearts longing to serve others, and a growing need in the community, came “Ability Central Works” in Beaumont. This goal of this vocational program for teens and adults with special needs is to bridge the gap between the public school system and adulthood, when finding a purpose or a working in the typical environment can be difficult.
“We are all the same,” said Honey Staudenmier, Director. “We are ALL individuals with different abilities.”
Ability Central Works is the brainchild of Amy Ten Napel and Honey Staudenmier. Ten Napel had a background in school psychology and as a special needs consultant to area schools, and she knew Honey from Beaumont ISD.
Ten Napel opened Ability Central first as a school in 2018, until covid came and the school closed due to the already-fragile health of the students. The building on College Street sat empty, while Ten Napel struggled with ideas for the future of the facility.
Then one day, she saw a social media post from Staudenmier, who had just had emergency surgery and was itching to get back to work. Amy told her they should talk.
The two put their heads together, and along with Russell Watley, whom Amy had worked with at the Ability school, piloted their vocational program in June of 2021, named Ability Central Works. It would be a job and skills program for individuals with different abilities, not a school.
“We wanted a place where people can work and be proud of the things that they do,” Ten Napel said. “The premise of what we do is that we all find value in work, in what we do for a job. Team members come to work, they have a job.”
Ability Central Works is a private 501(c)(3) entity. Funds to run the program come from tuition paid by team member parents, and sales of products that they learn to create. At the end of every day, team members get a token for completing that day, and at the end of the week, they get paid based on tokens received. They are team members working together, and not clients.
Ten Napel said she currently works three jobs, including owning “Ability Central”, hoping that once people see what they’re doing, more team members will join, and corporations would be willing to donate. With no money to advertise – and, frankly, no desire to -- they’ve been fortunate with local media publicity and word of mouth. As word has spread, they have gone from one team member to eleven.
“We don’t want to grow too fast,” said Ten Napel. “The people we work with need to love and trust newcomers, and we want it to be organic. Because we’re family. We’re in it for the long haul and this is our mission, this is what God has put in our lap.”
“There’s this whole spectrum you get with autism,” said Staudenmier. “Our program is like that - on a spectrum. No single person is alike. You have some programs that are on this end, and then you have us. We require that our people can independently go to the restroom, but we have verbal and nonverbal members, and they can’t work in a regular work environment. Too much stimuli.”
Ability Central Works provides a safe, nurturing environment for individuals with different levels of abilities. Some of the team members are “mildly” autistic, and some are battling diseases that have robbed them of their cognitive functions, and others have congenital developmental delays. All of them have blossomed in the program, becoming more social, more independent, and learning new skills.
Another difference is the work environment. Music and fun are a constant during the work day. Segments of work are followed by a break, and then work resumes with another break to follow. Music in the background is tailored to each members tolerance and preference. There is a “chill out” room with noise-canceling headphones, dim lighting and weighted blankets for those who get overstimulated, and many times, the line between work and play overlap.
If a certain song comes on as they’re working, dancing will ensue, along with the Tik-Tok videos that Honey records with the members.
“A song might come on and they want to dance during work. So, we dance,” said Staudenmier.
“That’s why everybody loves to be there. They can watch a movie after lunch. They play games so they can work on their social skills. Be with somebody they didn’t grow up with,” Ten Napel said. “A lot of our crew can’t be in public schools, so they make friends here and blossom. It’s not learning. It’s about personal growth and being part of an extended family.”
Ability Central Work’s first outing was in November at a craft show in Vidor, where they sold the products they make at the center. Amy provided each member with their own business card, which they proudly handed out.
The table was full of a variety of products – everything from seasoning mixes, to mini concrete planters of succulent plants, bracelets and homemade dog treats. The plants were grown by the members, who also created the planters. Each item is inscribed with the name of the team member who made it.
Ability Central Work’s members create each product from start up to the packaging. There is a white board in the workroom listing the ingredients and quantities of each ingredient for each product, and a member is assigned on each project to count the number of ingredients as they are put in. This breaks down the manufacturing process into manageable steps.
“You individually have to assess each single team member, how do they interact with others, the gifts they have, and you use those gifts,” Staudenmier said.
One member, Jon, has been baking with his father since he was a child and has gotten so proficient at it that he can make complicated creations. Staudenmier recently did a baking show for the members in the fashion of “The Great British Bake Off”, with Jon as the star.
“His dad was in tears saying this was the happiest day of Jon’s life,” she recalled.
There is also Cameron (called “Cameron with a C”) and Kameron (Kameron with a K), as Honey calls them.
Kameron was born with Agenesis of Corpus Callosum, a condition where he is missing 800 million nerves between the left and right side of his brain. Although Kameron was not born premature, the condition results in one half of the brain not communicating with the other half. Coupled with vision loss and autism, Kameron cannot drive, or live on his own. But to be around him, you see a proud and happy young man who takes pride in his job at Ability, who will make sure you have his business card and inform you that HE is the one in charge of the concrete for the planters -carefully keeping count of how much concrete mix the team uses on the project.
“I’m the boss!” he said, as Cameron-with-a-C laughed, but disagreed with him.
“I do the counting,” Kameron-with-a-K replied.
Cameron has a condition called neurodegenerative Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis, which is a rare cancer that he has battled since 2003. While it is inactive, he still receives treatment to slow the neurodegeneration down. It causes lesions on internal organs including the brain. Because of the effects, it has caused him problems with being understood at school and in other environments.
But at Ability Central Works, both ‘Kameron-with-a-K’ and ‘Cameron-with-a-C’ are understood perfectly. The difference is that this environment changes to accommodate their needs, not the other way around.
Ten Napel said they are figuring it out, and know they don’t have all the answers, and welcome feedback from the parents.
“One parent, an educator, suggested adding an exercise program, and now we have that, so they can stretch and move around first thing in the morning,” she said.
“We have our little space, but are always looking for what’s next.”
Both Ten Napel and Staudenmier envision an entire community for their people someday. While the team’s independence continues to flourish, none will most likely be able to live on their own. An inclusive community is a definite possibility – with the word of mouth, more team members and corporate sponsors.
“Most team members are going to outlive their parents, and we want to make sure they have a community of their own to turn to,” said Ten Napel.
“Someone said to me, ‘well it doesn’t matter if the product is perfect, these are kids with special needs’. And I thought my boyfriend was going to have to hold me back,” Staudenmier laughed. “We have been perfecting our (manufacturing) processes since June. And now we have them all lined out.
“And I said, ‘what makes you think one is better than the other? What makes us think we’re the right ones and they’re the wrong ones’,” she recalled. “It’s looking at people and having the human race begin to change their view, like they have in the past - when people with differences were tucked away in institutions.”
“Let me make sure you understand that our people take pride in what they do. They sit down and they pick out the colors, and they choose what they are going to draw. Whether they need assistance or can do it on their own - because some can. Everybody’s at different places. But they take pride in making sure it’s good, and we’re not going to send out a poor product because you want to classify us as ‘special needs’.
“We want our team to be proud of what they do. This is what they do for a living. THEY are the product. They are our people.”
If you would like to donate to, or shop for products at Ability Central Works, visit their website: abilitycentralworks.org, or contact them at (409) 273-3436.
Left to Right: Team Members Chloe, Honey, Kameron, Russell, Cameron, Taylor, Amy & Ashton (not pictured: Paul and Kole)
Just a few of many products for sale at Ability Central Works
Amy Ten Napel and Honey Staudenmier