Shana Riley, left, with daughter Melea

Welcome to our Changemaker Profiles blog series! Each edition we profile one outstanding social changemaker from the JVA client community. By sharing the stories of some of the incredible people we get to work with every day, each accomplishing extraordinary work in nonprofits, government, social enterprise and elsewhere, we hope we will bring a little light and inspiration to your day!

For this edition, we spoke with Shana Riley, director of Hearts ’n’ Hands work enrichment. The Hearts ’n’ Hands mission is to empower adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities through social enterprise and community connections. Among the items Hearts ’n’ Hands participants make and sell are beaded leather bracelets, gluten-free dog biscuits, recycled T-shirt dog toys, no-sew dog and cat blankets, herb culinary salts and herb-infused sugars, and team sport key chains. All products are sold at site locations, in local stores and at craft fairs. Hearts ’n’ Hands also has an Etsy store where it sells its bracelets. 

1. Tell us about your organization and the social change you are trying to achieve.

“The change we are trying to achieve is a world where people of all intellectual abilities are valued by their community and have a sense of worth. The premise of the program is primarily to give people with intellectual and developmental disabilities the opportunity to do the same things their brother, sister, mom or dad does—to go to work, go to school or give back in some way.”

2. What keeps you inspired and going when things get tough?

“The first thing is I understand that I am not qualified to be doing what I do. I am a 20-year stay-at-home mom. I pray a lot and believe that God provides the direction for me when I seek his guidance. And that God is not waiting for me to become perfect to use me.”

“I never imagined running a business. My schooling has been hit or miss. I was young when I had my first daughter, and I was a single mom for a while. In 1985 I met my husband who I’ve been married to for 30-plus years. I went back to school, but when my second daughter was diagnosed at age 1 with tuberous sclerosis, my schooling got put on hold again. A lot of times, people will use their schooling as a rationale—I can’t do something until I finish this degree. It is my faith in God that gives me the strength I need.”

3. What advice would you give to someone who is trying to break new ground in a traditional field?

“Probably the biggest thing is to look outside the box. Don’t let it hold you to something that is not going to work. Within our program, we look at each individual and we brainstorm a lot. It’s important to see success in the little stuff. When we add up the little things it helps us when things get tough.”

“In 2013, Hearts ’n’ Hands became approved as a Medicaid-funded prevocational training program for adults with developmental disabilities. Because we were making and selling a product during our training, state regulations mandated that we pay the participants of our program based on time studies. I didn’t want to do that, because I felt that all our participants worked each day to the best of their abilities, and I wanted them all to be paid the same for the time they were at program. I told the state I didn’t want to pay based on time studies, but if you give me some time, I will figure out how to do what you want me to do. The state said OK, and I worked with an attorney and CPA to create a plan.”

“We came up with the idea to add a second business to our program. We currently exist as a nonprofit (Hearts ’n’ Hands Work Enrichment) and a co-op (Hearts ’n’ Hands Co-op, of which all participants are owners). We make our products and bill the state under the nonprofit. Because the products are the participants’, they have chosen to give the products to the co-op, which is responsible for selling the products. All participants receive a monthly distribution based on the profit from all sales for the hours they attend Hearts ’n’ Hands each month. I want them paid, but I want them paid equally.”

“Also, being transparent when you come upon obstacles—not being where you are pushing against the state but saying: ‘Let’s figure out a compromise.’ I have shared our model and our co-op bylaws with other Medicaid-funded prevocational programs in the Denver metro area—there are four of us now that have this same model. One-hundred percent of the profit from products goes to participants. They don’t make a lot of money, but some have learned budgeting skills and all now have the sense of pride that comes from the value others see in what they make and in earning money.”

4. What book do you recommend to everyone you meet and why? OR What book is on your to-read list and why?

“To keep myself grounded, I get up each day and read a devotional called ‘Jesus Calling’ (by Sarah Young) and pray: ‘God, please help me to walk behind you, not ahead of you!’ That’s easier said than done sometimes—understanding there is a time and a purpose for things and I don’t always have the big picture is often hard to do.”

5. How have you worked with JVA, and how has that helped your organization? 

“JVA has been a godsend. In 2012 when my daughter turned 21 and had finished transition through the local school district, I began looking for a program that would allow her to continue learning job skills. Finding nothing in our local area, I commuted her two days a week to Castle Rock to a program where they were making dog biscuits. While she and I loved that program, the commute became exhausting. So I decided to start making dog biscuits in our kitchen with three of her friends. I saw it as an opportunity for my daughter and her friends to have something to do. I never imagined that it would turn into a business. With encouragement from the guardians of my daughter’s friends, I decided to look into creating a nonprofit. We then started packaging the biscuits to sell in front of King Soopers. Everybody there loved us, and we loved it!”

“Without a business plan, for the first year, little pieces just kept growing (we rented space in Arvada Covenant Church two days a week). When we became full, we looked for another church for space. Faith Bible Chapel offered us space one day a week. We maintained two site locations meeting three days a week throughout the next year. In 2015, we found a church (Christ Community Covenant Church) that offered us space for a five-day-a-week program.

“By 2016 we were full, so we opened our second site in Boulder. As more participants enrolled, so did the demand for our products. We had added several new products to our offering and started selling to local businesses. By December of last year, we had 40 participants and two sites and had a request from a family in Aurora to open a third site. After three months of opening our third site, the exhaustion from the stress was taking a toll on me and my staff. We decided to close the Aurora site, regroup and put together a business plan.

“That’s when we met Sarah through our product manager and one of our board members. What JVA did for me in the three months was to take everything out of my brain and put things onto paper. And I could begin to breathe again.”

“With the push from the state for segregated opportunities for all adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, we took a new look at our programing offerings. Though our program offerings were allowing participants opportunities to get out in the community, the label of prevocational training program was often seen as a workshop.

Adam helped us create a four-tier program business model and change our mission and vision statements to reflect this—I was able to do this because I got everything else out of my brain. I recommend JVA highly to everyone. I say if you don’t go there, you’re missing out.

“We now offer Community Connections—volunteer opportunities for people who don’t have interest in employment but want to be empowered by giving back. Our second tier is Prevocational/Skills Building, where participants work on habilitative and skills-building training. Our third tier is Internships—we now have seven participants who work for us and are paid minimum wage as they gain independent skills needed for community employment. And the fourth tier is Supported Employment and working with the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. We really want to work with smaller businesses, businesses that have not worked with our population, and help them understand the benefit adults with disabilities can offer.

“All of that came out of being able to sit down with Adam and Sarah. I also have a succession plan in place, and that was huge for me; my husband thought he’d never get me back.”

6. What else would you want to share with us that we haven’t asked?

“One of the things that set us apart is—I didn’t want people to buy from us because they felt sorry for us. I wanted participants to be able to make something that people want. A typical program like mine would have one staff member for seven or eight participants. We have one staff member for four participants. So they really get the support they need to be able to be successful and produce quality products. We also work a lot on peer-to-peer interactions. Through our ‘two people getting the job done of one’ approach, we are teaching the adults in our program to both advocate for themselves and to work together. A lot of our day is spent working on emotional intelligence and conversation skills, which we find is one of the biggest barriers for employment for this population.

“I want the community to understand that adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities have a lot to offer. When one of our participants stands behind our table at a craft fair and interacts with a customer, it is my hope that we are changing the perception of what individuals with disabilities can do, one person at a time.”

Keep up with the area’s most inspiring changemakers—read JVA’s Changemakers blog!