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At SpArc, an entrepreneurial program to foster independence

Between the Baltic Birch cutouts, the bottles of glue, and the earbuds-wearing Theresa Wongus singing along to her music queen, Patti LaBelle, the scene at SpArc Philadelphia could have been mistaken for pure frivolity.

But this was all business: the business of coaxing entrepreneurial skills from adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, a population whose talents often are not immediately obvious.  Make no mistake, they are there.

Just try matching Chelsea Remmert's astonishing ability to size up myriad pieces spread out before her and figure out how to assemble them to make chairs, beds, refrigerators, and the dollhouses they will adorn.

"It's all part of the entrepreneurial spirit that we're finding is so alive and well here," said Jammie O'Brien, director of marketing and development for SpArc, parent company of a number of organizations that have been helping build independence in people with disabilities for 68 years.

Candidly, it's also about marketing, "to get our name out there," said Laura Princiotta, a former dance-studio owner who began with SpArc as a volunteer 27 years ago and now is its chief executive officer.

Times are tough for nonprofits. Government cutbacks have put more pressure on them to find alternatives to sustain themselves.

"We're looking for an additional revenue stream other than government funding," Princiotta said of her agency of 135 employees and an operating budget of $8 million that started as the Arc of Philadelphia. "We're being asked to do way more for the same amount of money we were receiving six or seven years ago."

Hence the dollhouses, the first product in a new initiative – SpArc Marketplace, a social entrepreneurial venture to provide the organization's clients a platform to showcase and sell their works.

"It started with a strategic plan" two years ago, Princiotta said during an interview at SpArc's sprawling facility in a former cigar factory in the city's Tioga section.

Brainstorming by staff, board members, SpArc clients and their parents generated 60 ideas, with dollhouse manufacturing among the top two, in part because it was considered a natural progression from the in-house vocational program at SpArc. That primarily involves assembly and packaging for a number of private contracts, including Hanks Soda, Tasty Baking Co., and Jacob Holtz Co., specialists in furniture hardware .

The top idea emerging from the strategic plan was hydroponic farming, with two sites envisioned  -- one inside at I Street and Erie Avenue, the other outside on two tracts of land near Girard College.  Not only would farming create about a dozen jobs, but it also could serve as a reliable source of income, Princiotta said. And it would provide a valuable learning experience.

"People with disabilities, especially in our neighborhood, don't get a chance to see where food comes from," she said. "They'd be growing healthy food. … Everybody thought it was a really cool idea."

Initial crops are likely to be lettuces and herbs, "easy things," Princiotta said.

But given the start-up complexity of the farm – funding of $100,000 for supplies, along with constructing greenhouses and raised growing tables to accommodate wheelchairs – "this was way easier to get started," she said of the dollhouses, which are expected to employ up to six SpArc program participants. The farm is expected to get underway in 2017, Princiotta said.

The dollhouse program began over the summer. To get started, SpArc joined NextFab, a collaborative makerspace with two sites in the city, for about $4,000, Princiotta said. Its staff helped SpArc design the dollhouses and cut pieces -- more than 100 per house -- for some of the initial units. Cutting is now handled by Tip Flannery, coordinator of the Community Choice vocational program at SpArc.

Wood for the two dozen houses made so far was donated by Fessenden Hall  Inc., a Pennsauken-based distributor of cabinetry and countertop products.  Dollhouses, offered for sale at since late September, are priced at $70 each, including shipping.

"The hope is we'll sell lots  and lots of them, and the dollhouses are the beginning of an active retail e-commerce initiative," Princiotta said. "We have lots of ideas about other ones."

For program participants at SpArc, Princiotta said, entrepreneurial exposure represents an opportunity -- success -- that many of them have not otherwise had.

"These are folks who haven't been successful at anything or much in life," she said. "School was hard. This is an opportunity to fuel that."

The day I visited, Wongus, 26, and Remmert, 24, both from Philadelphia and both with intellectual disabilities, worked mostly in silence, sitting across from each other at a conference table in SpArc's library. Remmert, a puzzle aficionado, had an easier time of it. Pleasing her seemed to mean as much to Wongus as the prospect of a paycheck.

"Look what I got, Chelsea!" Wongus exclaimed, triumphantly raising a miniature chair she had just completed.

Remmert offered an approving smile and continued working, snapping parts together and applying glue.

"It makes me proud," she said.