Wooden replica popularity spreads like wildfire, creates jobs for disabled adults

SALEM, Ohio – In 13 years, a solution to a family crisis has turned into an ever-expanding business with a unique product line and philosophy.

According to Jim Gardner, executive director of Shepherd’s Heart Foundation, the company’s purpose – to serve people with disabilities who have traditionally been excluded from the workplace – is more important than the product. Yet the popularity of the miniature wooden replicas the company makes has spread like wildfire.

A family reason. The company, now located in the Salem Industrial Park outside Salem, Ohio, was started in 1989 by Gardner and his wife, Diane. The couple – he was employed as a social worker and she as an educator – hadn’t meant to start a business that would eventually employ Jim full-time. Their goal was to provide her younger brother, Doug Dailey, with employment. Dailey has multiple handicaps and previously met one closed door after another in his job search.

“Doug was in and out of housing and jobs, and nothing was easy to come by,” Gardner said. “There he was at 27 years old, and he had lost his job and housing again and was going to move back in with his aging parents,” he said.

Their search for a solution led them to Lambs Farm, an operation near Chicago that employs disabled adults. They visited the facility to learn more about its living arrangements, since they were entertaining thoughts of starting a group home locally for Doug and his friends.

Besides housing, the farm also offered an alternative format to the traditional sheltered workshop and had grown from a single pet shop to a complex on a 70-acre farm that employed 250 men and women with special needs. The couple was most impressed with the business operation and, after seeing employees silkscreening greeting cards, developed an idea for Doug.

Business starts. Shortly after the trip, they found a silkscreening company for sale in West Virginia. The Gardners purchased all the equipment and moved it to the basement of a small business incubator in Salem, with hopes of using the equipment on weekends for small printing jobs.

Then the phone started ringing.

“After the equipment was in place, we started getting calls from people who had heard we were starting a business for people with handicaps,” Gardner said, adding that the couple had no such plans at the time.

The Gardners had minimal or no experience using the equipment themselves and weren’t prepared to take on the responsibility of supervising others. However, the pleas from callers led them to do otherwise.

With help from a friend, the Gardners took in four employees with handicaps and began completing small garment screening jobs for schools and businesses. Working on weekends, the group screened shirts, jackets and hats.

“There was a job for everybody, with taking orders, screening, folding and boxing. The thing people need to realize is that for most of the people who work for us, they don’t want money. They just want to get into a healthy employment routine,” Gardner said.

Key to growth. Before long, it was evident those employees could not handle the garment end of the business. A standard line of greeting cards and miniature wooden replicas of buildings was added. The replicas proved to be the key for business, and the cards were eventually eliminated.

Ten years after the non-profit enterprise started, the company relocated in May 1999 to its current location to allow for growth.

“The old place was archaic. We were having to carry employees up and down steps to get them to their work stations,” Gardner said. The new facility is completely wheelchair accessible.

He and others train and monitor employees through all stages of production.

“Not everyone who works here has disabilities. We’ve also got men and women with physical and developmental disabilities,” Gardner said. “Our goal is to have between 40-50 percent of our employees with special needs,” he said.

Currently, there are two employees in the base coat department with disabilities, but Gardner has goals to provide opportunities in all departments, including graphics and sales.

“The hard thing is that our employees come and go due to things like illness, death or moving out of the area,” he said.

The work is ideal for those with disabilities, since each employee can work at his own pace on relatively easy tasks, according to Gardner.

Local focus. The wooden replicas were added to the mix when Diane Gardner, an avid collector of similar items made by competitors, couldn’t find any local pieces.

After figuring out how to silkscreen onto wood, the company started its own line of miniatures including series of lighthouses, mills, fire stations, courthouses and American memorials. In September 2001, they also added a new line of picture frames featuring school mascots and patriotic themes.

A Mahoning Valley series also includes amusements from Idora Park as well as Youngstown fire stations, churches, the Isaly Dairy Plant, and the gazebo at Mill Creek Park.

The group also completed a line of 10 barns, modeled after real Ohio structures, for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, and has its own series of barns as well. It also manufactures replicas of all sorts for fund raisers for churches, schools, and community groups.

“The best thing about our product is we can cater to any group, anywhere. Who wouldn’t want to have a replica of their church or school?” Gardner said.

The company advertises nationally in craft, church and school publications, and attends trade shows to promote its product. Shepherd’s Heart is also licensed to produce items for the Girl Scouts and Youngstown State University.

Details for realism. “Our detailing is the best out there. We strive to make the most realistic replica we can, and all our customers really are pleased and excited,” Gardner said.

The process begins with photographs and AutoCAD computer software. Line drawings are created in the company’s graphics department, turned into images on mesh screens, and prepared for production.

“To get a complete piece, there are several different layers screened, sometimes up to 10 overlays. Everything has to be right on. There’s no room for even a fraction of an inch error,” Gardner said.

A large portion of production is still done by hand, but the company has also purchased screening machines that help expedite large orders.

Wood composite board is cut by a contractor near Cleveland, and latex paints are also involved in the process.

“It’s not a kit. We start with a picture and draw everything in by hand on the computer. There’s no guarantee, but everything looks pretty close.”

Twelve to 16 weeks after a photo is submitted by an organization, the final product is shipped.

“Unlike a lot of other non-profits, we don’t rely on donations, because we’ve got to cover our operating expenses,” Gardner said. “We rely 100 percent on selling our product.”

“We realize that we can’t do all the churches and schools and be in all the gift shops, but we don’t want to be. Each replica order is unique and customized.

“The replicas will survive because they’re based on nostalgia and memories. Everybody wants one,” he said.

Shepherd’s Heart offers consultations by appointment only. The company also holds Christmas and spring open houses. For more information, contact Gardner at 330-332-2029 or visit www.shepherdsheart.org.

(You can contact Andrea Myers at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

About the Author

Former staff reporter Andrea Zippay wrote for Farm and Dairy from 2001 to 2009. More Stories by Andrea Zippay

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