Abilis opens job training site for disabled adults

Because it’s never too early to start shopping for the upcoming holiday season, Abilis has launched Abilis Gifts, the agency’s own retail training store for adults with developmental disabilities.

The store, at 50 Glenville Street, commemorated its official opening last Thursday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by State Reps. Livvy Floren (R-146) and Patricia Miller (D-145), First Selectman Peter Tesei and many others who got a first-hand look at the shop’s hand-made products, including soaps, candles, jewelry and magnets.

According to Lolli Ross, executive director of Abilis, an agency that provides developmentally disabled people with resources, opportunities and skills that enhance their ability to self-advocate effectively, the goal of Abilis Gifts is to create “meaningful employment for people with disabilities.” The ultimate objective is to teach those individuals job skills that will eventually help them gain more competitive employment in the broader community.

The store offers eight official positions, each of which must be interviewed for, including cashier, greeter, stock and inventory positions. There are several product development jobs as well, creating a total of about 20 positions at a time, available to individuals supported by Abilis, Ms. Ross explained.

The concept of building a retail training site began shortly after the downturn of the economy when many people were losing their jobs and those with disabilities were the first to go, she said. Three years later, the shop has gone from being unused as an old potting shed to an open gift store and from a dream to a reality.

The majority of the time leading up to the store’s launch was spent testing and determining which products would be sold. The products that were finally chosen were selected because even individuals with significant disabilities could have a “high degree of participation” in creating them, Ms. Ross said. The store will allow people who were previously unengaged to be actively engaged, she added.

Additionally, the goal in creating the products was to develop a unique brand in order to make Abilis Gifts a destination stop, as it is tucked away in a part of Greenwich that has few retail venues. Accordingly, Abilis soaps are organic, Ms. Ross said and the director says she uses the “silky” items “exclusively.” So with her personal endorsement of the products, Ms. Ross said the hope is that others will soon follow and turn this into a thriving business.

In addition to Abilis brand products, the gift shop offers a variety of other products that were approved by therapists, including a number of toys as well as customizable gift packages that can be assembled and delivered for customers, according to Keelin Daly, assistant director of fund raising for the agency.

The store’s most unique feature and its purpose, however, is to provide hands-on experience to developmentally disabled people who otherwise might not have a chance to learn useful job skills, Ms. Daly said. Most importantly, learning those skills helps develop confidence that will translate to all aspects of the individuals’ lives, she said.

Alexandra Woodruff, a 32-year-old woman who has been part of the Abilis program for 30 years, said she loves having the new store available to her. Though she currently does property maintenance as well as gardening work in the agency’s on-site greenhouse, Ms. Woodruff said she hopes to work at Abilis Gifts in the future.

“We have everything in here,” she said.

Susie Figgie, a 31-year-old woman who has also been part of the Abilis program since childhood, said she is happy to be working for the store assisting with pricing and sometimes working as a cashier.

Ms. Figgie said her favorite part of working at Abilis gifts is “using teamwork” to get the job done and that she hopes her work for the store will help both herself and the agency.

She has already been of assistance, however, by helping name some of the store’s products such as its Lucky Charms Soap, which has pieces of the popular cereal’s marshmallows inside of it — also Ms. Figgie’s idea.

The peak of the Abilis Gifts opening celebration was its ribbon-cutting ceremony, during which Ms. Ross explained to attendees how meaningful the store was and how much thought and effort was put into it.

In particular, Ms. Ross recognized longtime Abilis supporters Debbie Hilibrand and Debbie Levy for the funding and tremendous amount of time they put into developing the store. The duo was presented with a plaque of gratitude, which will hang in a “prominent” part of the store, Ms. Ross said.

To officially mark the store’s opening, Mr. Tesei cut the ceremonial ribbon, which was followed by plenty of applause.

“Thank you for all you do to support the community, and this is a wonderful addition,” Mr. Tesei said, adding that the store is a “real contributor to the broader overall community.”

The community wants to shop for a good cause, Ms. Ross said, and “We know we have a great cause.”


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