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Candle creations light the way to empowerment for adults with disabilities

Sun Sentinel logoSun Sentinel 8/26/2019 By Rick Menning, South Florida Sun Sentinel
a person holding a cup of coffee: ScentsAbility employee Michael D'Angelo counts candles in preparation for shipping in Coral Springs, Fla. © Carline Jean/Sun Sentinel/TNS ScentsAbility employee Michael D'Angelo counts candles in preparation for shipping in Coral Springs, Fla.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Another workday was about to begin at ScentsAbility Candles in Coral Springs, and the highly motivated group of adults were more than ready to take on their responsibilities.

When it comes to crafting candles, which on this particular afternoon were part of a large order for a national corporation, the employees refuse to be hindered by their intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The team of dedicated professionals took their positions in the production area and handled their tasks with a sense of purpose and conviction.

ScentsAbility’s handcrafted soy blend wax candles feature a variety of scents. The wick is cotton, and when lit, the candles are non-toxic and eco-friendly.

From the chemical process behind those scents, to the preparation and placement of the wicks into each jar, and even to packaging and distribution, the employees were 100% focused and paid attention to every detail.

a man standing in front of a box: Jessica Schmidt, whose mother founded ScentsAbility in Coral Springs, Fla., packs up candles for shipping. © Carline Jean/Sun Sentinel/TNS Jessica Schmidt, whose mother founded ScentsAbility in Coral Springs, Fla., packs up candles for shipping.

Their positive energy and sense of pride was evident as they diligently went about their business under the watchful eyes of ScentsAbility founder Bonnie Schmidt and executive director Denise Anderson.

a group of people sitting in a box: Bonnie Schmidt, left, and her employees, pack up candles for shipping at ScentsAbility in Coral Springs, Fla. © Carline Jean/Sun Sentinel/TNS Bonnie Schmidt, left, and her employees, pack up candles for shipping at ScentsAbility in Coral Springs, Fla.

“We are providing these individuals, through employment, with an environment in which they are creating something they are proud of,” Schmidt said about the nonprofit. “We are also teaching them basic job skills needed to thrive independently.”

She said all it takes for these individuals to shine is to be given the right opportunity under the right circumstances.

“With the candles, they not only have the ability to do the task work but they also have that creative ability,” Schmidt said. “It’s a multi-sensory kind of job and we give them the tools to do that. We even modify certain functions to conform to their abilities.”

For Michael D’Angelo, 33, the adrenaline started to kick in the minute he entered the small but functional storefront business at 11480 W. Sample Road.

“It takes a lot of hard work to make candles,” said D’Angelo, who lives in Margate and has Williams syndrome, a developmental disorder that affects many parts of the body. “There’s a lot of science and experimenting involved.”

a woman sitting at a table with wine glasses: Bonnie Schmidt, left, who founded ScentsAbility in Coral Springs, Fla., helps Alexis Chung with placing labels on candles. © Carline Jean/Sun Sentinel/TNS Bonnie Schmidt, left, who founded ScentsAbility in Coral Springs, Fla., helps Alexis Chung with placing labels on candles.

D’Angelo, one of the inspirational leaders among the crew, also promotes the business at area events where the team and its candles are showcased.

“I’m the spokesperson for ScentsAbility,” he said. “A lot of people don’t know about disabilities, and how those with them can be productive. We go out and make them aware of all the great things we do. We bring our candles and it’s really cool.”

Lexi Chung, Anderson’s 25-year-old daughter, is affectionately known as the “Wick Queen” by her co-workers. She has Down syndrome and Type 1 diabetes.

Chung, who primarily works with the wicks and subsequent attachment of the stickers that hold them in place on the bottom of the jar, serves as vice president of the entire candle-making process, including marketing and sales.

“ScentsAbility is my purpose. It makes me happy,” said Chung, of Coral Springs. “I love telling people about the candles and explaining the scents. Lavender helps those who are anxious and have stress, and that’s what I tell (prospective buyers).”

Brian Lipson, 32, is involved mainly in the packaging and labeling details performed before the candles are shipped out to customers. He refuses to let his Apraxia, a motor disorder, stop him from being successful.

Lipson, who travels from Delray Beach three times a week to perform his duties, has been a part of the team for eight months.

“I enjoy it. I look forward to coming down here and getting to work on the candles,” he said. “I’ve had some stressful jobs but this isn’t stressful at all. This is fun.”

It’s not only fun but also financially beneficial. Each worker is a professional who receives payment just like any employee. Profits from each candle sold go toward providing those with intellectual and developmental disabilities a better future.

“We have amazing quality candles because these young adults want them to be amazing,” said Anderson, who first learned about Schmidt’s venture when she received her business card at an event. “This isn’t a craft; these young adults are really professional in what they do and how they go about doing it.”

It was Schmidt’s daughter Jessica who has CPS 1 deficiency, which causes toxic levels of ammonia to accumulate in the blood, who inspired her to start making candles in her home many years ago. Three years in, the effort grew to where 10 to 15 of Jessica’s friends with special needs would gather in a social atmosphere where work and fun took center stage.

“I wanted to give (Jessica) a purpose. I wanted to give her a productive life,” said Schmidt, who knew at that point a business was blooming. “We started making candles in the bedroom and I could see that Jessica really loved it.”

ScentsAbility takes pride in its workforce setting that lends itself to sociability as well as functionality.

“We want (those with intellectual and developmental disabilities) to shine both as people and as skilled candle makers,” Schmidt said. “These are their products and we want them to take pride in that. They all have unique personalities but are driven toward the same goal, and that is to succeed.”

Candles cooling at ScentsAbility in Coral Springs, Fla. ScentsAbility is a candle-making business that employs young adults with special needs. © Carline Jean/Sun Sentinel/TNS Candles cooling at ScentsAbility in Coral Springs, Fla. ScentsAbility is a candle-making business that employs young adults with special needs.

Kim Winger, 33, doesn’t let her autism spectrum disorder affect her. The Coral Springs resident displays her talents at the beginning and end of the production process.

“I make sure all the jars are clean and ready for the wicks and the wax, and then before we ship them out I put the caution labels on them and make sure everything is right and ready to go,” said Winger, who loves being with her friends and enjoys her role.

The supervisory staff also includes director of operations Michael Mack, a chemist whose expertise in formulating the various fragrances and taking on the scientific challenge of candle making have proven invaluable.

In 2017, ScentsAbility was honored at the National Candle Association Annual Conference and Expo. While there, important partnerships were formed with some of the largest fragrance houses, wax manufacturers and other raw material suppliers in the industry. Schmidt and Anderson served as the NCA’s keynote speakers.

“When I started ScentsAbility, there were very few, if any, nonprofits that had a retail product,” Schmidt said. “Now it’s become a little more popular. We are the longest running company of this kind in Florida.”

The national visibility has been critical, especially when it comes to sales and marketing.

“Corporations are aware of what we do, and they are being socially responsible by helping those with disabilities through their purchases,” Schmidt said. “We are a perfect fit for them. They will send us a list of what they want and we will go to work to create the right package and the right scent.”

Anderson added: “You can buy a candle anywhere, even at a gas station. But it’s the mission behind these candles that attracts the buyers. It’s literally saving the lives of these young adults.”

Garrett Holeve, a 29-year-old worker with Down syndrome, put it all into perspective. He most likes the packaging, tagging and shipping aspects of the job.

“This gives me so many opportunities to have a (better) life. This can lead to so many possibilities,” said Holeve, who makes the commute from Cooper City. “I come in here and work and I have friends. And I can make money, so it’s great.”

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©2019 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

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