Ask Carrie Seymour how much she enjoys stacking shelves in the “Discover Local” section at Kroger’s — bags and bags of corn tortilla chips, corn cracker minis, heirloom popcorn, and other Shagbark Seed & Mill organic foods — and her smile lights up the aisle.
“I like to make money,” said Seymour, 32, a client of Community Connections of Athens County, a day activities organization serving men and women with disabilities. “And I like the exercise involved. I’m pretty fast about it.”
Fast indeed, as Seymour neatly stacked three shelves of Shagbark popcorn into rows in a matter of a few minutes.
She needs to work quickly and efficiently, because with direct support professionals Courtnie Walls and Tania Sill by her side, their visits Mondays and Thursdays can include ACEnet, Avalanche Pizza, Baker Center, Burrito Buggy, Busy Day Market, Casa Nueva, Donkey Coffee, Farmacy, Jackie O’s, Kisor’s, Kroger, Little Fish Brewery, OU Inn, Seaman’s, Sol, and Village Bakery.
“Carrie is very meticulous,” Sill said. “She does such a good job no matter what you ask her to do. And she has no problem doing it.”
Shagbark Seed & Mill (a graduate of ACEnet) and Community Connections share the same location at 88 Columbus Circle in Athens and have been in a partnership since 2011. It is one that provides meaningful work for Community Connections clients when called upon.
As one example of a routine collaboration, about 20 Community Connections clients recently spent time placing labels, by hand, on 750 Shagbark organic popcorn bags. They were paid based on the number of bags labeled. Not all of the organization’s 43 clients are able to work due to the extent of their disabilities.
Shagbark co-owners Brandon Jaeger and Michelle Ajamian both have prior experience serving people with intellectual disabilities. They believe providing work opportunities for Community Connections clients is a win-win for both: Shagbark meets its order needs quicker, while workers earn some pay, a sense of pride in good work accomplished, and the dignity that comes with being valued.
“My favorite part (of the partnership) is that Community Connections is doing deliveries for us,” Ajamian said. “Oftentimes, people who have impairments wind up having opportunities to make some money, but they are isolated from the rest of the community while doing it.”
“When Carrie delivers for us, she is interacting with all of our customers, twice a week, which is not only great for her but I would dare say it’s even better for people in the community,” Ajamian continued. “We’re not going to be comfortable as a society until we have experience being around people with disabilities right there in the food aisles and other public places. I think we need to be in a world that includes everybody.”
Rachel Ulbrich, Community Connections director of day habilitation, commends Jaeger and Ajamian for constantly looking for new ways to provide her clients with work.
“The amount of pride and job that I see and hear in Carrie’s voice, when she is talking about her job with Shagbark, is just amazing,” Ulbrich said.
When Community Connections clients are ready for lunch, there is a real time-saver involved. They share a large common area of open space with Shagbark Seed & Mill, where clients enjoy their meals on several fold-out tables. Above them, hanging from the towering ceiling, are large and colorful giant puppets that belong to Honey for the Heart, a puppetry workshop that also believes in providing meaningful activities for people with intellectual disabilities.
Shagbark sublets its building space from Community Connections, which was looking for a partner tenant that wanted to collaborate whenever possible, Jaeger said. On Fridays, Shagbark’s floors are swept by Tom Kidd, another Community Connections client.
“Shagbark Seed & Mill in Athens, Ohio, is a certified-organic seed cleaning and flour-milling facility devoted to processing Ohio-grown organic beans and grains,” Jaeger said. “One reason Michelle and I started the business is to provide a model that can be a replica around the nation for other businesses that will benefit from organic regional farming.”
Shagbark partners with eight family farms across the state who supply the organic corn, beans, and flours of several types, while Shagbark handles the seed cleaning and flour grinding.
Shagbark also grinds cornmeal grits, polenta, spelt cereal, buckwheat flour, and pasta from spelt flour. Milled products are highly popular with Athens Farmers Market buyers on Saturday mornings. Overall, Shagbark products are sold throughout the state – including in Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati – to stores that include all of Ohio’s nine Wholefoods stores, Jaeger said. The more business Shagbark handles, the more opportunities there are to work with Community Connections.