The Right Tools

Appears in the November 2023 issue.

By Judy Sutton Taylor

Workshop gives adults with special needs a chance to build success

Inside Doodlebug Workshop

In 2016, Sarah Starke was contemplating the opportunities that would be available to her son, Alex, who has Fragile X syndrome, as he prepared to graduate from high school. She was looking for options beyond traditional jobs for developmentally disabled adults, such as ones in the food service and janitorial fields.

After brainstorming with other parents of special-needs kids to come up with appropriate work that would be physically and intellectually challenging while also teaching valuable skills, she decided on woodworking. She gauged interest with a moms’ group on Facebook for purchases of growth charts made by Alex and his peers. Within 36 hours, there were 42 orders and more than 500 comments about what an amazing idea she had. Working out of a shed connected to her apartment, she helped 17 young adults learn to use tools to get the items made, and with that Doodlebug Workshop was born.

People working at Doodlebug Workshop

Doodlebug expanded to two larger garage spaces before Starke signed a lease in February 2020 for the nonprofit’s current location, a storefront at 314 Main Street in Wheaton. Coronavirus temporarily stalled full operation of the space, but today, participants ranging in age from 16 to 63 (including Alex, who is now 26) come in several times a week to work on a variety of products made from wood, metal, and reclaimed materials. Some of the more popular items include birdhouses, charcuterie boards, and live-edge wood furniture such as benches and tables. “Our participants really enjoy working on something that turns into a product that can be sold,” Starke says. “They take great pride in being on Main Street, being part of the community here, and making things that people want to buy.”

Depending on ability and preference, some participants work in a sanding area using power tools on pre-prepped projects while others paint, glue, and assemble. Products are sold in a retail portion of the space as well as through a partnership with a nearby consignment shop, the Perfect Thing.

Outside Doodlebug Workshop

A dedicated team of about 25 volunteers help run the programs at Doodlebug Workshop, handling tasks like cutting with saws and providing one-on-one guidance when needed. Doodlebug also has a horticulture branch, building planter boxes and getting plants from fellow local nonprofit We Grow Dreams to grow fruits and vegetables, which are donated to a local food pantry. They also partner with the Wheaton Park District and Warrenville VFW Post 8081 to make and place flags for the Field of Honor in Seven Gables Park every year. “Everything we do is based in serving the community as special needs ambassadors,” Starke says.

Starke would like to create satellite programs in other communities eventually. “There’s a lot of call for it,” she says. “Participants in our day program come from Alsip, Rockford, and throughout the western suburbs.” But her big dream is to create a “tiny town” of sorts—where special-needs adults can live in their own tiny homes with staff members who live alongside them to monitor their well-being. “The idea would be to create a community around them.”

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Photos: DoodleBug Workshop, Sarah Starke; Jen Banowetz (exterior)