STEPHENS CITY — When her youngest daughter asked if she could go to college, Vicki Robertson realized that might not be possible. That’s because Hannah Robertson — a smart, outgoing and effervescent 17-year-old — was born with Down syndrome.
So Vicki Robertson made it her mission to help Hannah and others with developmental disabilities. In October, she launched I Can 2, a nonprofit that trains and employs people with Down syndrome, autism, traumatic brain injuries and other special needs. The goal is to make participants as self-sufficient and independent as possible while allowing them to earn money and special rewards.
“We have what we call a 4-E approach, which is Explore, Educate, Empower and Employ,” Robertson said on Thursday evening during a special fundraising barbecue at I Can 2 headquarters.
I Can 2 is based in a small building at 5321 Mulberry St. in Stephens City, across from Orrick Chapel and the Stephens City Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company. The property serves as a training center and workshop, where clients gain marketable skills doing things they love to do such as woodworking, photography, baking, gardening and creating home decor.
Nineteen clients currently work full- or part-time with I Can 2, either in its workshop, the sanctuary at Orrick Chapel or a Christian book store operated by the nonprofit on Main Street in Stephens City.
When clients first join I Can 2, Robertson said they are encouraged to explore all of the nonprofit’s different job options.
“Even if they’re nonverbal, it doesn’t take long to see what they love,” she said. “You just have to watch.”
The goal is to match clients with a job they’ll love so they’ll have a sense of pride and want to come to work.
“When they find something they want to do, we train them how to do it,” Robertson said. “Then we give them an opportunity to choose. If they want to work in the community, we’ll try to find a partner that would work with us to hire them, or they can work in our book store. We also let them stay here and work if they want to.”
I Can 2’s workshop is filled with tools and materials that clients can use to either learn a trade or create a product that can be sold to people in the community. Some of those products, including door wreaths and inspirational wall hangings, were being bought Thursday by people who attended the barbecue.
The workshop’s most unusual feature is in the very back of the building, where eight hamsters scurry inside large cages. Robertson said the hamsters are there as part of I Can 2’s animal husbandry program.
Perhaps the most unique skill taught by I Can 2 is ministry. Robertson is utilizing Orrick Chapel as a training center for clients who want to share their faith with others in the community.
“That will be a church that is 100% led by people with disabilities,” Robertson said with pride. “They’re going to do the greetings, they’re going to do the ushering, they’re playing drums, they’re learning guitar, they’re doing song-to-sign [language], they’re going to play the bells, some of them will do responsive readings, they’ll take up offerings — everything.”
Robertson said she expects the first church service to be led by I Can 2 clients will be held in about a month. Details are still being finalized.
The best part of any job, of course, is getting paid. Robertson said I Can 2’s clients are either paid in cash, with gift cards or with special certificates that can be used to purchase items from the nonprofit’s book store or a special shop inside I Can 2’s headquarters.
“When they come into the program, they write out what is meaningful to them and the things they would like to buy once they start working,” Robertson said.
When payday comes at the end of each week, participants are allowed to spend a portion of their earnings but must also tuck some into savings. Every three months, Robertson said they get to dip into their savings to buy more costly items.
Aside from the small amount of money I Can 2 earns by selling its client’s products, the nonprofit is totally reliant on community donations.
“We do not receive any government funding, and we do not charge our participants to be in the program,” Robertson said.
To learn more about I Can 2 and to make a donation, visit ican2.us.