Special needs adults find hope at Wigglewow

Record Photo by Ruby Thomas
Carissa Hursh, left, and Katie Buckler shared a laugh as they placed dog treats into packages at Wigglewow, 14515 Old Taylorsville Road, Jan. 17. The company was created to offer opportunities for people with special needs.

Concerned about his nephew’s future, a 13-year-old who is autistic, Mark Pfeifer created Wigglewow — a business that produces natural dog treats and employs adults with special needs.

Located at 14515 Old Taylorsville Road, Wigglewow operates in a 12- by 16-foot kitchen. Pfeifer describes the space as a “shed” but the simple space has brought hope to the special needs individuals who work there, including 25-year-old Katie Buckler and 29-year-old Carissa Hursh.

As Gospel music played in the background on a recent workday, Buckler and Hursh filled bright blue bags with Wigglewow’s oat and bacon treats.

“This is my first job and it’s really good,” said Buckler. She’s a new hire at Wigglewow and plans to work every other Thursday.

Hursh said she’d worked before, in the kitchen of a nursing home, but likes Wigglewow better.

“I love it. This is my favorite job,” said Hursh.

When they’re not at work, Hursh and Buckler spend their time at St. Mary’s Center, a day center for adults with intellectual disabilities.

Mary Jo Payne, a co-founder of St. Mary’s, said there tend to be barriers to employment for individuals with special needs, so she was excited when St. Mary’s clients were invited to work at Wigglewow.

“It’s just wonderful. There’s a spiritual atmosphere here and they’re respected,” said Payne of the workers. “They’re excited to be here. And for Katie, this is her first paycheck.”

It’s important for people with special needs to be active and employed, Payne said, noting that employment helps build self-esteem and confidence.

“It’s the reason we formed St. Mary’s. Parents were worried that their kids were sitting at home depressed” after graduating from high school, said Payne. “We don’t want to keep them in a facility. This opportunity is rare.”

Pfeifer calls his special needs staffers “epic chefs” and said he’s committed to treating them fairly. Noting they tend to worry about making mistakes, Pfeifer said, “I tell them ‘There is nothing you can do here that will make me mad at you or fire you.’ That focuses them because then they’re not worried about getting in trouble.”

Wigglewow pays $8.50 an hour which is $1.25 above the minimum wage, he said.

A parent also has the choice to work alongside their child. In that case, the parent is paid $12 an hour. Twenty-five percent of the company’s profits are also placed into a long-term trust fund to be shared by the employees, said Pfeifer.

“We create opportunities for them, but what I’ve gotten in return outweighs any blessings I’ve given them,” said Pfeifer.

Pfeifer said the idea for Wigglewow came from his brother Sheldon Habiger, who was worried about his son Soron.

“My brother called me and said, ‘I can’t sleep at night. I’m haunted by the thought of who will take care of my son when I die,’ ” said Pfeifer.

Habiger suggested Pfeifer — who had a successful career in the corporate world — start a business that would employ special-needs individuals. Pfeifer’s nephew does not work at Wigglewow yet. He’s only 13-years-old, but Pfeifer said Wigglewow will create job security for Soron’s future.

Pfeifer’s goal is to grow Wigglewow into one of the biggest employers of special-needs individuals in the next decade, he said.

Pfeifer said his brother proposed a cupcake or muffin shop, but Pfeifer’s wife Kathy, an animal lover, suggested a business that catered to pets. Pfeifer said he prayed about it, asked God for guidance, then quit his job to focus on this new venture.

Wigglewow has been in operation since August and employs 13 people with special needs. Pfeifer said the business model he’s designed ensures a “person with special needs has to be involved in the process at some point,” said Pfeifer. Sixteen people are on the waiting list to be hired.

Pfeifer said he’s aiming to expand and plans to move into a 3,000 square-foot-space in Jeffersontown by June.

Barbara Franson — who serves as Buckler’s and Hursh’s chaperone on the days they work at Wigglewow — said special-needs individuals are capable of more than society imagines.

“We all want to have a role,” said Franson. Being employed allows them to “identify with something other than what society says. They have to be given a chance. They have to be seen as individuals. They’re not a label.”

Wigglewow dog treats are gluten-free and made with oats and bacon. They can be purchased on the company’s website at https://wigglewow.com/ or at Binet School for students with learning and developmental disabilities.

Ruby Thomas
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Ruby Thomas
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