Heather Voigt and Mandi Hoffman know the struggle.
With nearly a decade of experience between them working with people with cognitive and physical disabilities, both of them have seen time and again how difficult it can be for these individuals to find gainful employment.
On paper, Wyoming would appear to be one of the best states for employing people with disabilities. RespectAbility, a nonprofit focused on disability issues, says that more than 50 percent of Wyoming residents with disabilities are employed in some manner.
But that hasn’t been Heather and Mandi’s experience. In reality, they say, finding meaningful employment for a person with a disability can be extremely difficult with few opportunities available and even fewer still that pay enough to provide real quality of life.
In 2019, Mandi and Heather decided enough was enough and set out to do something about it. They sought inspiration from a similar operation in Casper, Wyoming, and adopted a business concept that would fill a need for a safe, supportive space for people with disabilities to learn vital job skills and attain real-world work experience.
Nearly two years later, Hems and Gems officially opened for business on Lakeway Road as a thrift store.
Heather and Mandi didn’t have any expectations of grandeur; they knew what they were signing up for. As a thrift store, their business would depend on donations from the community and would operate using funding obtained by selling those donations.
Their helpers would not be traditional workers. Rather, they would be individuals with disabilities with whom Mandi and Heather had developed relationships during their previous occupations. The only exceptions would be two part-time workers and one full-time staff member.
By their third week in operation, however, Heather and Mandi were blown away by the sheer magnitude of donations that overflowed all of their onsite and offsite storage areas.
On June 22, the store was completely full and was three weeks out from being able to accept any new donations. Clothing items, shoes, kitchen accessories, electronics, toys, and baby items lined a dozen shelves and multitudes of clothing racks.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but I wasn’t expecting this,” Heather said, adding her astonishment at the overwhelmingly positive response from the community for Hems and Gems.
“We’re having so much fun and hearing feedback from the community has been awesome,” Mandi added.
Inside Hems and Gems
Everyone was hard at work Thursday afternoon. Heather and Mandi, joined by helpers Izzy and Cory, worked together to sort, organize, and price donations. Everyone smiled as they worked and the atmosphere was light and positive.
It’s like this all the time, Heather said in between answering questions shot across the store by Izzy who darted from one end to the other in her quest to organize.
On a typical day, Monday through Friday, Mandi and Heather open the store at 10 a.m., sometimes swinging by and picking up their helpers for the day on the way.
Their helpers can choose when they want to work, how long they want to work, and pick the job they want to do on any given day.
“We play off them and try to find them a job they are interested in,” Heather said, adding that there were six people with disabilities that come to Hems and Gems to work and participate.
She and Mandi work the front desk greeting customers and assisting with purchases while supervising and helping their helpers in their day-to-day tasks. Those purchases cover salaries, rent, utilities, and other business-related expenses.
Eventually, Heather and Mandi said, the plan is to officially file as a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit, but for now the business model Hems and Gems is doing what it’s supposed to be doing: providing helpers the opportunity to create a professional resume that showcases real-world work experience.