Patrons mingle as they browse clothing racks inside a boutique store in downtown Springfield, waiting for the start of a fashion show. The bustling crowd has gathered on the first Friday of October, during the city's Art Walk. A fall breeze blows through the boutique’s open doors along Walnut Street, which welcomes in the sounds of nearby vehicle traffic and the beeping of a crosswalk.
This is Inspired Boutique, a branch of Abilities First — a Springfield Agency working with individuals in southwest Missouri with developmental disabilities. The store sells gently used clothing and furniture, and proceeds go back to these individuals to meet their needs.
This is the mission of Inspired — to give back to the community, and to offer employment opportunities to individuals with disabilities. Michele Fields, director of public awareness for Abilities First, said inclusivity is a standard for every branch of this agency.
“Abilities First, in general, is an inclusive, employment place,” Fields said. “All of our offices (and) all of our retail stores employ people with developmental disabilities at a competitive wage. We are all about inclusion in the community — that is highly important to us. We believe that everyone deserves the right to employment (and) everyone deserves the right to a good life,” said Fields.
The organization encompasses several programs. First Steps provides early-intervention for those with developmental disabilities. The Art Inspired Academy serves as a creative arts environment to practice music, theater and movement. There’s also a gallery and event space called Art Inspired.
April Ballenger, 29, has worked at First Steps and Inspired Boutique as well as volunteered for Art Inspired Academy for three years. Ballenger says she has an anxiety disorder and a learning disability, but does not view them as restrictions. Speaking to KSMU alongside her manager, Angela Campbell, Ballenger shared her favorite aspects of the job.
“I get to meet new friends and learn how to price the clothes and how to put them where they need to go,” Ballenger said.
“She’s great at waiting on the customers and greeting the customers,” says Campbell. “She gets lots of compliments on her work ethic and how (well) she communicates with the customers.”
Campbell has been a manager at Inspired Boutique for two of the three years she’s worked there. She wanted a job with purpose — a job of service, said Campbell.
Employees are considered based on their ability to work in the community, she says. Whether the individual has a disability or not, they are all trained for the same duties and given the same responsibilities with consideration to each worker’s needs and accommodations.
“So everybody helps with the donations, the sorting, the pricing and the greeting of customers — offering them a dressing room (and) telling them about our mission,” Campbell said. “So we’re all-inclusive, we all work together, we help each other (and) we work as a team. That is very rewarding.”
Ballenger said working within the community has been positive, and she’s met scores of community members through Abilities First. Campbell, along with Michele Fields, always greet her with a smile.
“April is a joy,” Michele said. “She always has a smile on her face, she’s always very helpful and she’s really blossomed from working there. She loves coming to work.”
Fields says when people with disabilities are employed in an inclusive environment everyone benefits.
“It’s important for people with disabilities to be employed in an inclusive environment and once they are, everyone benefits,” she said. “They’re co-workers benefit, they benefit … it changes some perceptions and some acceptance issues that go on in today’s job market.”
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Ballenger says the distinction shows those who do live with a disability that they are not alone, and hopefully sheds light on the subject.
“You know, having a disability or not, we’re still people,” Ballenger said. “I know how disabilities can be — I have a disability myself and I just want people to know that have disabilities that they’re not alone out there.”
Megan Bleidistel started working for Inspired Boutique as an advertising coordinator in August. She’s an advertising major at Missouri State University and felt it was an opportunity to further her education. Bleidistel, who has a family member with Down syndrome, said before long she came to appreciate the agency’s mission even more.
“When I met April here, at first … you know, she’s shy and she didn’t really know me that well and I was new to everyone,” Bleidistel said. “But just a couple of weeks ago she started to give me hugs just like the other girls and she warmed up to me. I know I’m in the right place and I’m accepted here.”
Fields said Abilities First would like the community to treat individuals with disabilities as any other employee, and give them opportunities throughout the city.
“We would like to see employers open up those opportunities — open up their minds, maybe change some thinking, and really think about employing someone who may have a developmental disability,” she said.
For Inspired Boutique manager Angela Campbell, her vision is to expand the business to offer more products for customers. By doing so, she hopes to hire more individuals with disabilities and be an example to the community.