Thinking of a way to give back to the community and support people with Down syndrome, Joel Wegener of Ohio decided to buy an ice cream truck to create a career path for his special needs children.
What’s the best way to get people and a community together? Food, yes, but ice cream? Even better! Joel, 61, and his wife Freida have 10 children, two of whom were born with Down syndrome, Mary Kate and Josh.
People with Down syndrome are born with an extra chromosome, which leads to a wide range of physical and developmental problems. Down syndrome is a lifelong condition and cannot be cured.
Still, doctors know and understand more about the condition, and have helped countless families and communities support loved ones with Down syndrome.
The effects are different for each person, so people with Down syndrome have varying mental abilities, ranging from mild to moderate with thinking, reasoning, and understanding issues.
While they may learn things later than others, people with Down syndrome can pick up new skills their whole lives.
Some may need lifelong care, but a compassionate and inclusive community can help people with Don syndrome care for themselves and lead full and meaningful lives.
There have been great strides in providing opportunities for the mentally challenged, including people with Down syndrome. Joel, a retired science teacher, however, still worried that his children might have problems with gainful employment in the future.
So, after searching online, he bought an ice cream truck from another special needs family in Indiana truck for $6,000, and after some repairs, set out to sell ice cream with his two children. Why an ice cream truck?
He explained, “The reason the ice cream truck is so perfect is that it has allowed them both to develop their interactive and social skills in a comfortable environment.”
After some fixing and rebranding, the Wegeners opened their business to the public in April 2021, which became a big hit with the locals in their hometown, appropriately named Loveland.
“My wife had the brilliant idea to name it Special Neat Treats, a play on words of special needs. When we bought the ice cream truck in January, I never expected for this to happen. The publicity we have received is amazing, and we hope that we can inspire other families with special needs kids to find new and inventive ways to support their children,” Joel said.
The business has certainly exceeded expectations. The family has sold thousands of desserts and there are plans to expand the fleet of ice cream trucks. It has also been a wonderful chance to bond with other people with Down syndrome.
Joel shared, “Almost every time I go out, I find a family with special needs or with some connection. It’s just been an unbelievable journey.”
The success of Special Neat Treats adds to efforts that create more opportunities and secure employment for people with Down syndrome. Joel explained, “Josh is in his senior year at school so he isn’t around as much, but Mary is nearly 22 and therefore no longer eligible for public education. We were worried about what she’d be able to do once she reached this age, but the ice cream truck has really eased our concerns.”
He added, “Mary always wanted to work with me, but up until now there hasn’t been a suitable job opportunity for her. When teachers and people would ask her ‘What do you want to do when you get older?’ she wanted to work with Papa.”
Joel and his wife are incredibly proud of their children for successfully running the Special Neat Treats truck. Frieda stated, “We were not afraid of having special needs children or the challenges that came with it.”
And the ice cream truck is not just a business, but an environment where the children can learn new skills.
Joel said that people with Down syndrome may struggle with tasks such as smiling and asking questions, and these are skills that his children need to practice at work. In addition, Joel is also teaching his children to manage money and interact with customers.
Josh and Mary are extremely grateful to their father and the rest of the family for their love and support.
They said, “Our dad is the best dad ever and we love to sell ice cream with him. We have a really fun summer and we hope we have good luck selling ice cream in the future.”
To Joel, Special Neat Treats has become bigger than an ice cream selling business. He hopes to grow the enterprise and assist even more people with Down syndrome.
He said, “As a parent, you have desires. I don’t know that either one of them will ever be totally independent. But we hope to move them in that direction, and I hope they can keep helping me sell ice cream for a long time.”
After running the business together and see the interest it has generated in the community, Joel, Mary Kate, and Josh hope that Special Neat Treats will help raise awareness about the hiring potential of people with Down syndrome and varying physical and mental abilities.
Joel stressed, “No matter what your abilities are, there’s something that you can do and you can spread joy and interact with other people.”
To learn more about this amazing story, watch video below: