Thursday, January 03, 2019

A New and Exciting Era for Team LaJoy!

Something new is happening with LaJoy Academy, something exciting and scary and requiring great trust and an enormous amount of hard work.  You see, we seem to be shifting into a new mode as our high schoolers begin thinking about their futures, and it appears I am now leading an Entrepreneurial Think Tank at LaJoy Enterprises (a real entity) rather than merely teaching high school!

Part of the reason the blog has been quiet the past few months is the extraordinary amount of work that is going into business development. So WARNING, this is a very long photo filled post! Let me bring you up to speed...

With the growing painful awareness about how impacted Kenny, Angela and Olesya are with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, and with Angela's all-too-brief attempt at employment outside the family last spring, Dominick and I were forced to accept the reality that is true for the majority of people who struggle with FASD, and that is that the statistics are very real around employment and the inability to hold a job.  An individual with FASD has to be taught differently, has to have allowances made for days that function is too low, and has to have ongoing regular support in order to succeed.  They scramble information too often, their brain freezes under stress, they need constant repetition and someone working with them who won't get frustrated with brains that seemingly work really well one day, and the next have to be retaught everything they learned.

That just doesn't happen in the real world.

So...recognizing that graduation for Kenny and Angela was fast approaching, and having tested the waters already, we knew the time had come to think very differently.  There are no programs they qualify for, as they literally fall through the cracks with function that is too high, and yet...  That is the problem for most people with FASD in America, and why most individuals with FASD end up homeless and/or in jail, because of the complete and utter lack of services available to them.  After all, they LOOK "normal", right?  Without the awareness and pro-active support that countries like Canada offer those with this disability, the outcomes for those with FASD are abysmal.  And that is just NOT going to happen for our three, not on our watch!

After considering and casting aside many ideas, we recognized one important factor.  Their three brains equal one REALLY good brain!  We approached them about the possibility of working together, utilizing their strengths and weaknesses to be each other's "Back up brains", and knowing that together they could create a nurturing and understanding environment for one another.  The idea grew on all of us, and we recognized this just might work!  Next was to think about what they might do together.

Welcome to the birth of "Buckaroos Slices and Scoops"!

Team LaJoy is working to create a small takeout pizza and ice cream business in some spare space located along the side of our liquor store.  I will work as their job coach for as long as my help is needed, in whatever capacity is needed.  When I am not on site, Dominick is right next door to lend assistance, and if they are really desperate, our kind employees will also be there to step in if an emergency arises.

Since the beginning of the school year, the three have been hard at work taking my idea and putting meat to it.  They have researched ice cream and pizza, attended a food show, crafted a business plan, studied marketing, and spending hours upon hours researching pizza ovens, and coming up with a good store layout with our limited space.  Let me share some photos here of the past three moths work!

Creating checklists and breaking big tasks up into smaller bite-sized steps.

Just a few of our resources, we have even found a "Scoop School" for ice cream
 and a Pizza Start-Up training online!

They created a "Buckaroos Business Covenant" which will
guide them in how they interact with one another and the world.

Then the real work is the "before" of the physical space they will be inhabiting.  When we purchased the liquor store, it was always with an eye to utilizing this space for some other small business. It was going to need some real work to empty it out!

It is not a large space, and it will be imperative that we plan well.

Having brothers who are willing to spend hours in physical labor to help you succeed is a gift unlike any other.  Matt and Josh have offered assistance in any way they can, and are going to help with the build-out, and in the process learn more about framing walls, drywall installation, wiring, point of sale installation, laying tile, painting, and more...all without pay.

I fell a little more in love with Josh when, as we had our New Year's Sacred Celebration, he said his main goal for 2019 was, "To work hard at everything I do, and to support my family and siblings in any way I can, and do whatever it takes to help them make it."

The task was daunting to clear this all out.  This will be the front service area with seating and the ice cream counter.

Whew!  More to organize better and clear away!  This is the rear of the new store and will be the kitchen area.

Ugh! Lots of work ahead!

Never fear, with Olesya on the job, organization WILL happen!  What a gift this young lady has for creating function out of chaos.  It is a key strength she brings to a team that the other two members lack.

Yes, he does smile ALL the time!

Here we go!  Team LaJoy kicks it into high gear and in ONE AFTERNOON made enormous progress!

Luckily, we have access to storage units right across the streets, which helped considerably.  

Matt and Josh helping direct and think about using space wisely, something the other three struggle with.

I love how hard work is not a "four letter word" in our family. 
Honestly, it helps us believe in one another more, and Dominick has set the best example ever of "happy hard work" for our kids.

Hey!  We are beginning to see the light, literally! HAHA!

Tons of extra shelving being moved, that 15 passenger van is proving to be far more useful than we ever imagined!  We didn't even know we needed a surrogate truck that would also carry our entire family.

I think we have three pretty darned cute men! 

Laughing their way through a very tough job :-)

The family "Spacial Coordinator", Matt literally tested as "gifted" by the school district in spacial relationships, and I swear he packs and visualizes space better than anyone I have ever met.  Therefore, he gets the job every time it comes up!  What is neat that I am noticing is that as our kids have matured, they have really learned to defer to whoever is more skilled in a particular area, with no hassles, and it creates a wonderful team dynamic which allows enormous jobs to get done far more quickly.  Everyone takes direction well from the person they know does something better than they do, and thankfully, everyone also keeps Kenny safe knowing he sometimes doesn't take in enough information in chaotic settings to avoid calamity...hahaha!  Even more important, they all still value Kenny's contributions and know he is a very hard worker who just needs guidance sometimes.  But Kenny is the one who will do their public speaking for them and step up in human interaction capacities, where Matt tends to hang back and always has.  

Giggling through a very long day.

Ok, so Mom did a fair amount of directing while taking photos to document progress.  Here Angie is listening to me as I help organize and plot where items that need to remain in the store will go.


Proud of their work!

We took a field trip to Denver to check out a couple of restaurant supply places, and to attend a restaurant show!

This was not a buying trip, but an opportunity to touch, feel, and see equipment they were going to need to consider purchasing.  Our FASD kids retain far more with visual and hands on exposure to material than with verbal or written, so we knew we had to have them see things we were talking about as we began planning kitchen space.

We walked the aisles of this very store when Matt and Josh were little and we were buying things for the airport restaurant.  Fun to return with different children of ours who were much older and considering their own possible business.

Here is where we really begin to see panic set in for Kenny, who is overwhelmed suddenly with the idea of having too much variety in the menu.  This is the young man who had to make 3 attempts at fudge a few years back, and can't really make a cake from a recipe on the back of the box.  The girls, who don't struggle in that way, are reassuring him that he can handle the accounting and finances, which they really WILL find difficult, and Kenny is amazing at!

It was this very moment when all four of us began to see the real possibility of success as they would each "have each other's backs", be able to tamp down anxiety when one of them was dealing with an area of real challenge, and how good of a partnership this has the potential to be where alone, they will each struggle to make it.  It was actually a sacred moment, where new awareness kicked in, despite what could have been awful if Kenny were in it alone.  He was close to mentally shutting down, saying, "I think we should just sell cheese and pepperoni pizza, we don't want to over complicate things." and "BROWNIES??  You want to sell BROWNIES?  We don't want to get carried away!"

And it is also a little heartbreaking to think that the mere consideration of selling a brownie feels beyond reach to this truly brilliant young man.  It is a strong reminder that FASD is NOT about IQ, but about how the brain can access and use knowledge that is stored.

We all also knew that the girls are just as likely to (and already did in moments) get confused and anxious over the financial components, where Kenny is an absolute whiz and will lead the way, offering THEM support.

Talking things through, reassuring, listening...this family works hard at emotional skills that make all the difference in the world in stressful moments!

This girl is in Seventh Heaven at the idea of having a real business with a real kitchen to work in!  A dream come true for her!

Whew!  The reality of the cost is...ummm...staggering...and we need HOW many of these???

Kenny loves pizza, and is excited once he is reassured that all will be handled well.  We selected pizza and ice cream as ANYONE can scoop an ice cream, and pizza is relatively simple, too.  He was already calculating out rough overall equipment costs, and the enormity of it wasn't overwhelming him a bit!  He "gets it" and reads a P&L like a pro.

Later that day we moved on to the restaurant show, where they would take their first stab at interacting with vendors, asking questions, and getting a feel for the industry.  They have all attended shows as kids with Dominick and I, but this was their first one where they were leading the way.

I stepped back and was there solely as support should they need it, and as a guide to suggest who they might talk to, and what information they might obtain.

Angela is in charge of speaking to the ServSafe vendor to learn about training for them.  We were an intriguing group for each vendor they spoke to, and once they understood what was going on, most were super kind and very helpful.

But this is where Kenny shined and the girls were far more tentative!!!  Kenny is in charge of dealing with various insurances, and he is so comfortable approaching people, doesn't mind looking like a rookie, and spent 45 minutes or so with two different vendors asking intelligent questions, learning the industry lingo, etc.  Angie and Lessie were far less comfortable, and they saw where Kenny's strengths will really come into play to help them.

All in all, it was a wonderful experience and helped make it all "real" to them.  The weekend was the perfect opportunity to cement the idea of them as a threesome who fill in each others empty spaces, and smooths over the rough edges of brain malfunction.  They tentatively took baby steps toward viewing themselves as adults as well, when speaking with other adults one on one and being taken seriously.  Did they need help from me?  Of course, but any 19 or 20 year old would who was starting out in business.

We ended the day doing "Field Research" at a New York style pizza parlor, where we summarized our day, talked in depth about what we learned and how hard the job ahead was going to be, and we...

...ate pizza!!!

Back home it was time to assess ourselves honestly, and name what will be the hardest so we can work with what "is" rather than what we wish were true.  

Being visual learners, we took our written list and created a diagram, or "web" of generalized tasks ahead of us, categorizing them clearly.  Then we will check items off the diagram as we tackle them one by one.

For me, this entire project is incredibly daunting, and also exciting.  Not only do I have to help create a business I know little about, but I have to think about multiple other things, such as how do I teach the information they need to know as we are on this road of discovery together, how do I then take that information and adapt it for their special needs so their brains retain it.  There are questions about how I anticipate break downs, work with the emotions of the moment when it feels overwhelming to someone, how do I look at the big picture and break it down into manageable chunks for them to really do as much as possible on their own.  During the past three months I have learned a lot more about how to think differently, how and when to step in and step out, and it became clear that, through trial and error, they could handle harder things but none of them can easily break a larger task down into the size pieces they need to be able to succeed.  So, for example, with the business plan, they all write VERY well, and tried on their own for 2 months, with me breaking it into sections.  Little progress was made.  I decided to step in, and broke it into paragraph bite sized pieces, we completed the entire 27 page business plan in a week and a half.  I wrote none of it, they wrote it all, but they needed someone to explain it in smaller portions, break it apart, and then help them put it all together.  Big picture thinking and planning is a real deficit in ways we are understanding better now.

Next came the layout, and creating a visual diagram of the store space and fit in every piece of equipment needed to operate.  To do this effectively, we made a 1 inch to 1 foot equivalent plan, and Kenny cut out little paper models of sinks, fridges, the oven and more.  Then we could move them around as we needed to in order to find what we hope will be the perfect layout.

This was MUCH harder than we anticipated, for the limited space meant we had little room to play with.  Everyone got in on the act, and this was an area where Lessie and Angie took a backseat to Kenny's thinking, as they struggled with visualizing it even with this "map".

Over and over we manipulated imaginary tables and freezers, probably spending 20+ hours in an attempt to find the best way to lay things out.

Everyone got in on the act...

Yes, including Sunny! Hahaha!
We finally settled on something that felt right.
In addition, Kenny and Dominick also spent 40+ hours researching ovens, which was a far larger task than anticipated as well.  Gas or electric?  What is the energy cost of both?  Convection or impinger?  Every single decision has been made with the kids' disabilities in mind, and the oven was no different.  We elected not to go with a deck oven because of memory concerns, and instead went with a conveyor as they can't burn a pizza due to forgetting it is in the oven.  We are attempting to simplify every process as we go along, imagining what might be difficult, what requires memory that is faulty for all three, what over-complicates things when a simpler method work well enough.  That alone requires a lot of brain power from me!

As we wait for architectural plans to be completed, Dominick and the kids took their imagined layout and taped it on the floor, and cut full size paper representations of fridges, sinks, etc. to better be able to visualize our intended layout and help the kids see if it would work.  There are many more added steps in creating a business with the kids, but it all helps them "grab hold" of things concretely so they can think well and make wise choices. 

The first of the supplies representing a lot of manual labor to come!  Dry wall, new doors, and more are now awaiting the next couple of months to begin altering the space for their use.

The first big items arrived, freezers that Dominick needed for ice for the liquor store (Prior he had 2 chest freezers and a large commercial freezer from an ice company...we go through a lot of bags of ice for our liquor store customers!) which will also be shared with Buckaroos Slices and Scoops.  This was necessary to create more space for Buckaroos.

Again, everyone pitched in to get them awkwardly moved into the store!

I laughed as I looked at this photo!  Kenny's sensory issues kicking in and the sound of the scraping on the floor of the freezers combined with the noise from the door buzzer from our liquor store proved to be too much for him.  Josh also has really had challenges with auditory sensory issues in the past, and the two of them have both had to wear sound deadening ear muffs from time to time to help deal with certain environments.

And yesterday, on January 2, 2019, it became official:

No backing out now!
Buckaroos Slices and Scoops has it's "birth certificate"!
The kids sat with me as I explained how to file a new business with the state and we did it together online.

Opening their business checking account at our AWESOME bank, US Bank.  We feel like everyone who works at this bank is our friend, and they have been part of our life since traveling to adopt Kenny when they had to gather $30k in new bills for us to travel with.  They have witnessed each of our kids start their first savings accounts, and then, as happened for Josh yesterday, open their first checking accounts:

Our other 16th birthday tradition, opening your checking account and getting your debit card :-)

Whew!!  Looking back at all of this, and considering all the work that isn't even pictured here, it is no wonder I am exhausted and haven't had time to blog!  We haven't even covered all the standard school work we have done, such as tackling an entire year of Modern World History  and completing the entire years worth in three months, writing four 8-12 page essays along with that.  We have continued with literature and Business Writing, math, and for Josh chemistry, and our coolest History of Rock and Roll all while accomplishing what is reflected in this blog post!!  I would say it has been an awesome first semester! 

Are we scared about the possibility of this failing?  Of course we are.

Do we have the money for this?  Nope, thank goodness for credit.  

Why are we doing this?  We feel we have few options, and we will spend the money this way, in productively working to try and find a way for our kids to be self-suficient, or we will spend it on other far less productive ways with lawyers, bail money, therapy, or having couch potatoes who can't hold jobs.

Will you ever be able to retire?  Are you KIDDING me???  Of course not.  And yes, that is honestly worrisome.  

Can they do this?  Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  I really think they can.  We are being very realistic and expect they will need a large amount of support to begin with, probably for a couple of years, and ongoing support afterward to a lesser degree.  No denying it.  That support will be me.  But we also know what they are capable of when assisted, when guided, when provided with the help they need.  They are not helpless nor hopeless, but they are definitely not able to be fully independent either.  

Why not have them just work at the liquor store?  The pace is too fast, the register too complicated, the environment not adaptable enough.  Their brains can not handle that at this time, nor in the near future that we can see, none of the three could and they all readily admit that.  They need something slower, less complex.

The truth is, these three would find it almost impossible to remain employed at McDonald's without a lot of accommodations.  They thrive because of the support they receive from those around them who adapt things, who re-explain over and over, who have patience, and who are forgiving of mistakes that would not ordinarily be made.  Without an environment that provides that sort of support, they will not make it.  For those of us, family and close friends, who know them well, of this there is absolutely no doubt.  But there is SO SO SO much there to work with! So much intelligence, kindness, and a willingness to work hard!  We will do whatever it takes to help them succeed, all of us who love them will, and they will do whatever it takes, too.

More importantly though, this feels God guided.  Things that shouldn't have fallen into place have done so, a pizza oven was purchased and was one third the cost of what it should have been and is in like new condition.  An ice cream company with one-of-a-kind product from Florida that does not work in the Western United States is willing to not only work with us, but once they heard the story are willing to train the kids one-on-one if we get them out there.  God is in this one, now we need to do our part and trust, but also work night and day to make a go of it.  As Angie said, "That is the easy part, we already know what it feels like to work 10-12 hour days and we have been doing it with Dad regularly since we came home!"  

Here we go, on another adventure:-)  Team LaJoy always seems to do things differently, and I think I am very, very glad about that.  I will do my best to share as we go along here, as there is a lot more in store, and much to learn!  But I will leave you with this, the Mission Statement from the kids' business plan.  We already have one prospective employee lined up for June who is another teen with FASD locally, and so they are well on their way to living into their Mission Statement and making a difference:

Offering great food at affordable prices, every slice and scoop we serve reflects our resolve to rise above our limitations and to inspire others to do the same. Through partnerships and participation, Buckaroos will encourage and support those with special needs in our community. 

May it be so, my beautiful ones, may you truly inspire others, lift others up with opportunities to work, and may God be with you every step of the way.  

I know you inspire me every single day.