General Manager of Mrs E's

“They take the job seriously and do a good job,” Mr. Maranell said of his employees with developmental disabilities.


General Manager of Mrs E's

When he started the job tryout in school, a paraprofessional helped Tyler learn the grocery store job. Now 23, he’s become a trusted full-time employee.



General Manager of Mrs E'sNow Mr. Riddle, who has Autism, mild Intellectual Disability and Schizophrenia, is working a 40-hour week, has health insurance through the company, a 401(k) savings plan, and profit sharing.


General Manager of Mrs E's


“I’m right in there with everybody else” could be said to be Colin Olenick’s life theme. “With a little bit of what I’d call ‘unorthodox help,’ I’ve been able to achieve much.”


General Manager of Mrs E's


Now 21, David works full-time as a medication aide in a senior center, has his own apartment, car, and computer, and plans to gain additional education to continue a career in health care.


LaDena Hempken


LaDena Hempken works daily with severely disabled adults, many of whom have multiple disabilities and for the most part are non-verbal.. She said the job -- the first paying job she has held in 12 years -- gives a purpose to her life.


Tammy Carrell


“I always want to learn more,“ said Employment Specialist Tammy Carrell, who works for KETCH in Wichita.. “But a lot of stuff you learn along the way. Each client is a different person.”


Katherine Carpenter


It wasn’t until she went to Valeo Behavioral Health Care in Topeka that Katherine Carpenter’s life made a major change for the better. The culmination of the improvement: a job at Brighton Place, brought on by help provided by Ms. Carpenter’s Employment Support Specialists at Valeo.


Patty Waters


As a Job Coach, or Employment Consultant, she finds employment for persons with developmental disabilities -- some with severe physical and mental limitations -- and then trains the newly-hired employees until they master the job.


Maureen Harvey


The first step in the process of finding employment for people with disabilities assigned to the agency is getting to know the client and the client’s preferences for employment, said Tish Gutierrez, and Employment Specialist for Johnson County Developmental Supports.


Kristen Farley


Kristen Farley, Employment Specialist Supervisor at Valeo in Topeka, said one of the joys of the job is to watch clients who find work change for the better. "They become more outgoing," she said.

General Manager of Mrs E's

It was during many discussions about Angela’s future employment possibilities that they came up with the idea of raising calves.

 is funded by the Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities (KCDD). Design by Lawson Phillips Associates. Stories by Tim Hoyt. Photography by Lawson Phillips. Publication design by Arthur McCash and Lawson Phillips.

Joe at WorkJoe Steffy’s parents admit it started off as a way to prove the school system wrong. What it turned into was a future for their son. A future with his own community surrounding him.

Joe’s father Ray Steffy said they were told that because Joe has Down’s Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and is non-verbal, Joe had no chance of future employment. His future was most likely in a group home, living with others with disabilities and maybe doing busywork in a very controlled atmosphere.

Ray and Joe’s mother Janet Steffy knew better. They lived with Joe.

“We saw more than that with Joe,” Mr. Steffy said. “At home, what we saw was that Joe was very capable of working. I said ‘we’ll prove Joe has capability.’”

The Steffys set out to show the world what Joe could do. But what Joe, now 24, has accomplished in the years since then has amazed even his parents. In many ways, Joe Steffy -- Poppin’ Joe -- has become a nationally-known symbol for successful employment of young people with developmental disabilities. .

Joe’s success might appear to start with his business, Poppin’ Joe’s Kettle Corn, which has increased sales tremendously since it began in 2005. Or the success might be measured by the number of appearances Joe has made as a speaker at recent national autism conferences across the country, using a video slide show to display the success of his business.

But Janet and Ray Steffy point to something else that began success for Joe -- the community around him.

Before Mr. Steffy had the idea for a Kettle Corn business for Joe while on a trip to Alaska years ago, there was the swimming coach that found a place for Joe on the pool maintenance team after he didn’t do well in regular swimming classes. Joe worked that job five summers and learned swimming in one-on-one sessions with the coach.

And there was a horse-riding trainer, who realized that besides learning to ride horses, Joe could also take on responsibility. Soon Joe was in charge of closing gates and helping with chores.

Ray and Janet Steffy are big believers in working with the community that surrounds their son to find what he can do and what he wants to do.

“This is about building a community which Joe is a part of and contributing,” said Janet Steffy. “Community teaches you the skills.”

Today, there are Joe’s community contacts around his mobile home near his parents place in rural Louisburg. He has had jobs in the festival off-season working with real estate agents setting up furniture in homes for sale or cleaning up construction sites.

“We can change how one community sees Joe,“ said Mrs. Steffy. “People know and like Joe here.”

Joe Steffy has the kettle corn business down to a fine art. First he dumps a measured load of kernels into a large black and silver kettle, red hot from a gas furnace. With a large wooden spoon, he quickly starts stirring the kernels as his father urges him on. Then he adds a measure of sugar and continues the fast-paced stirring.

“Faster Joe, faster!” says Ray Steffy. “Ready to dump?”

Joe dumps the popped caramel corn out of the kettle onto a screen, where he sifts through the product with the spoon to let kernels that failed to pop sift out to a screen below. Soon it’s on to bagging up the kettle corn.

At the many area festivals they work, Joe also takes his turns waiting on customers.

“So many people with autism don’t want to look people in the eye, but you don’t see that so much in Joe,” Mrs. Steffy said.

Mr. Steffy said one of the joys he witnesses is watching Joe fill orders at convenience stores.

“Joe re-stocks the inventory, I fill out the invoice, and Joe signs it,” he said. “He gives it to them and they hand him the money. He walks back to the car three feet taller,” thinking “I’m a contributor to society.”

Selling to convenience and grocery stores, through a web site, and at festivals all across the area, Poppin’ Joe’s Kettle Corn has increased sales from $16,000 in 2005 -- the business’s first full year of operations -- to over $57,000 in 2009. Mr. Steffy said their goal is to top $100,000 in sales by 2012.

The Steffys say Joe uses some of the money he makes from the business to take skiing trips to Colorado, accompanied by a mentor.

“Joe has what he’s earned,” Ray Steffy said. “And his pride….the ‘I did it. Mom and dad didn’t do it for me. I did it.’”

When Joe Steffy became eligible for adult services through the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, his parents had to scramble. Joe could not receive these services, which include night support, in his parent’s home. But if he turned down the opportunity to receive adult services, his name would go to the bottom of the waiting list and not come up again for about five years, the Steffys were told.

The Steffys did not want Joe to have to move into a group home to get services; they had always fought against this possibility. Then they found they could establish an agency in Joe’s name to provide the needed services, and found a mobile home where he could live not far from their own rural Louisburg home.

“It’s a limited license agency,” said Mrs. Steffy. “It’s called Joe’s Landing.”

The Steffys say they mostly find people to provide personal assistance to their son through word of mouth, often finding students at local colleges. Mrs. Steffy said they prefer young male mentors because Joe models after others.

“We need the best model possible,” said Mrs. Steffy. “And he needs to be active. When he’s not active, he ends up with behavior problems or self-injury.”

Mrs. Steffy said they usually rely on their “gut feeling” about people willing to work with Joe and be a good model for him.

“Some people we brought on didn’t work out because their hearts were not in it,” she said.

Mrs. Steffy said one problem that parents with a child with disabilities face is becoming overly dependent on the systems in place that provide assistance.

Some of the assistance is within the education system.

“They forget to tell you that when your child turns 21, they’re no longer there,” she said.

But the Steffy’s concern about programs for young people with developmental disabilities runs deeper. They say most programs for this population begin with a prearranged program that doesn’t allow for differences and choices.

“It’s ‘here’s our program; it’s a box, and if you’re not in the program, you’re out,’” Mrs. Steffy said. “Joe needs to be given choices. Do you want to do this or that? His life is full of choices.”

In the last few years, Joe Steffy has been traveling. Besides appearances before Kansas legislative committees, he has appeared as a keynote speaker before major autism conferences in New York, Ohio, North Dakota and Nebraska. He has also been invited to speak at a conference in Arizona.

Mr. Steffy said he was taken aback when the first speaker fee for Joe arrived.

“It’s kind of been amazing,” Mrs. Steffy said.

The Steffys praise highly a Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities program called Partners in Policymaking for helping them learn how to advocate for their son and others with disabilities. They also received a grant from the Council years ago to help get Joe’s business started. But from the start, it’s been a learning experience for them all.

“When Joseph was born, Janet and I and the rest of the family had never experienced a person with disabilities,” said Ray Steffy. “All we did was try to learn from what we see around us.”

And the future for Joe? Ray Steffy said they plan to continue building the kettle corn business and eventually hire a manager.

“Joe will be the icon for the business,” he said. “Even now, he’s an icon.”

Mr. Steffy said that already, when they have to be at two festivals at once and Joe can only help work in one, people at the other festival ask where Joe is.

“People get a good feeling doing business with Joe,” he said.