As is the case with many businesses, the employees and customers at Fairfield’s Woofgang & Co. were eager to reopen on June 1. The difference: The employees are primarily young people with disabilities, and the customers are canines.
Not entirely true; there aren’t any Dalmatians doling out their own cash for Woofgang’s wares, which include its signature all-natural, gluten-free Pupper Nutter Patties treats as well as an array of tug toys, leashes, apparel (for the pets’ owners) and various other accoutrements.
But the nonprofit’s customers’ excitement over finally being able to at least pick up products at the 1300 Post Road store has been palpable, according to Executive Director Erika Eng.
“I started here in January, and seven weeks later we had a global pandemic,” Eng, formerly the COO at Bridgeport’s Discovery Museum, said. “So I told everyone we were going to pivot pretty quickly to digital and they all looked at me like I was crazy.”
Under the supervision of program directors Flo O’Brien and Kelly Maffei — also one of Woofgang’s co-founders — Woofgang’s 35-40 young adult participants, who have been diagnosed with a wide range of disabilities, are taught how to create and cook the Pupper Nutters, as well as a variety of vocational skills that will help them when they enter the job market.
And, Eng said, learning how to use — and utilize the proper etiquette in — teleconferences, email and other digital communications have obviously become de rigueur.
“They have really thrived,” she said. “Especially during something like the pandemic, you can see social skills sort of slide. But we’re helping them stay connected with each other and with us, and we’ve been able to present guest speakers like (Fairfield First Selectwoman) Brenda Kupchick, (Bridgeport Regional Business Council Board of Directors President and CEO) Dan Onofrio and (state Rep.) Cristin McCarthy Vahey.”
Those sessions are followed by game play — Hangman, Bingo and the like — with the students to drive home the principles discussed, Eng said.
Woofgang was founded in 2017 by Maffei, Amy Stern and Kris Burbank — all mothers of young adults with disabilities — to provide vocational training for similar young adults, as well as increasing community awareness of the need for local employment options among those individuals.
According to the company’s literature, there are more than 3 million people in Connecticut living with disabilities; their unemployment rate is double that of their typical peers.
To date, Woofgang & Co. has provided 8,000 hours of vocational training as well as 2,000 hours of customer service training.
During the shutdown, Woofgang formed a collaborative relationship with Bridgeport’s Beardsley Zoo to create a “Quarantine Provisions” package consisting of the dog treats, a temperature-control tumbler and a plush toy from the zoo; Woofgang’s young adults package each one.
It also relies on Go2Guys, a volunteer, tip-based service that runs errands, handles small personal deliveries and offers pickups and drop-offs. The business was started by Jamie Palazzo, a former Woofgang team member.
Eng added that Woofgang is also in the process of shifting its production facility from Bigelow Tea’s headquarters to its own site, also in the Black Rock section of Bridgeport. That decision, she said, was driven both by outgrowing the Bigelow space and from wanting to renting its own building and renovating it to meet their needs. If all goes according to plan, Eng said, that facility should be ready before year’s end.
The nonprofit recently received a $5,000 grant from Fairfield County’s Community Foundation to help support programming for its team members, both virtually and remotely, during the pandemic. Part of those funds will be used to deliver production kits to participating team members, Eng said.
“We know we’re not an ‘essential service,’ in that we’re not working in health care or as first responders,” she said. “But we’re extra essential to the population we serve.”