Medford pet store helps developmentally disabled get work experience
Kevin Riordan, Inquirer Columnist
|Bagging dog treats at Pride Paws are (front, from left) Michael Hoffman, Alec Ritzel, and Alicia Headley. Watching from behind are (from left) manager Sara Steinmetz; Suzanne Link, Hoffman's mother; manager Renee McCormac.|
At Pride Paws, homemade dog biscuits are hot items.
"Sometimes we sell them as fast as we can bake them," says manager Renee McCormac.
The biscuits helped launch the nonprofit Medford retailer, which offers developmentally disabled young adults a place to work and prepare for "the next, better job," says founder Joe Ritzel.
He and his wife, Linda, of Marlton, are part of a close-knit group of Special Olympics parents who established Pride Ventures Inc. Joe is its board president and Linda is a trustee.
The parents set up the organization in 2009 because their kids were nearing graduation from the Lenape Regional School District. Private-sector jobs were becoming less available for everyone, but particularly for young people with autism, Down syndrome, and other disabilities.
Joe notes that some big retail chains that traditionally hired the disabled had shifted toward offering them only unpaid positions.
After brainstorming and networking - which led to several Cherokee High teachers volunteering to develop a training curriculum - the parents came up with the Pride Paws concept.
"We thought a pet store would be a friendly environment for the kids," Linda says.
Specializing in accessories and treats made on the premises ("we grow the catnip out back," she notes), Pride Paws opened in a former dress shop on Main Street in September 2011.
Since then, about 30 developmentally disabled people between ages 18 and 29 have worked there part-time. Most live in Burlington County and are referred by local school districts, private schools, or community organizations. They earn minimum wage after a 200-hour training program.
Only one has secured an outside job so far - at a South Jersey supermarket. But the trainees, most of whom work one or two five-hour shifts a week, are enthusiastic.
"I love it so much. I love the people and the dogs who come in," says Alicia Headley, 22, of Marlton.
Alec Ritzel, 21, carefully enumerates what he considers the best elements of his job. Cashiering is number one, followed by waiting on customers, making biscuits, and washing the display window.
Michael Hoffman, 21, of Medford Lakes, especially enjoys greeting customers. So much so that he's been given the honorary title of "mayor" among some in the neighborhood.
Unfortunately, despite the township's promotional efforts for Main Street, foot traffic can be on the light side.
"The store is losing money, although it does bring in some revenue," Joe says, adding that Pride Ventures raises most of its $150,000 annual budget from donations.
The store, which is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, also gives back. It hosts a monthly "adoption Saturday" featuring animals available at local shelters.
It sells merchandise to benefit the K-9 program of Evesham Township police. And Pride Paws makes free shipments of its biscuits - an eight-ounce package retails for $5 - to U.S. military guard dogs serving at the American embassy in Afghanistan.
A flag flown over the embassy was sent to the store in appreciation and is among the items that Hoffman, a.k.a. the mayor, is eager to point out to a visitor.
Lynn Headley, Alicia's mother, apologizes for tearing up as she describes what a difference Pride Paws has made for her daughter.
"If she wasn't here, she'd probably be at home, not working," Headley says. "She always wanted to work with animals, and it's been a wonderful experience for her.
"She meets people in the community. She meets old friends, and she's made new friends.
"She'd work here six days a week if she could."