This non-profit business, located in downtown Farmington, is a multifaceted program and resale store. When we talked to the founders, Luann Honerkamp and Jessica Harmon, they said most people find out about the Visions of Hope Training Program because of the Dress 2 Impress Resale Boutique.
The two entities are separate and one couldn’t function without the other. But I’m getting ahead of myself. You really need to hear their story from the beginning if you never have.
Luann and Jessica have shared a great friendship for 14 years. Jessica has two sons, Garrett and Morgan, who are wonderful and gifted boys with autism whom Luann has the honor of being a godmother to. The two boys were fairly young when Luann read an article titled, “Who Will Care for Dana?”, in which detailed the story of a girl named Dana on the autism spectrum and what would happen to her when she graduated. Luann learned that the statistics are staggering of the unemployment rate among autistic adults and they also have a very high rate of suicidal tendencies.
She immediately related it to Garrett and Morgan and knew that she had to make sure that there was going to be something in place to help them transition from school years to adulthood in the ‘real world’.
After that, the seed of an idea took root. The idea of a place where autistic youth and young adults could come and be trained in practical business and social and life skills by individuals who are trained and empathetic to their specific challenges. A place where youth can connect with others with similar struggles and gain real-life experience in the workplace, build relationship skills, learn to create a resume and/or portfolio, and prepare for interviews. This was the beginnings of what is now known as Visions of Hope Training Program.
At this time four years ago, Luann and Jessica began researching all they could to see what other people were doing in the way of training programs for specific individuals with learning challenges. There were a few in the St. Louis area that had similar programs. Luann and Jessica learned all they could and modified the model to specifically fit what they wanted to provide in our area.
They went to SEED$, Southeast Economic Development Fund, Inc. and talked to Janie Radford to utilize their resources for small businesses and entrepreneurs as well as took free entrepreneurial classes from Washington University.
The idea of having an “upscale resale” shop worked well for this plan. They wanted it to be classy and good quality business/business casual/formal wear that was reasonably priced. This would be a great resource for the community to have nice clothes at a fraction of the cost as similar resale stores were charging, as well as offer a place for the Visions of Hope interns to have that practical working environment that would fit their level of ability. This facet of the dream is now what you know as Dress 2 Impress.
The choice of having the store located on Columbia Street in historic downtown Farmington fit the upscale boutique style that Jessica was envisioning. The location also facilitates opportunities for the interns to participate in practical daily business transactions and relationships. They go to the bank and make deposits (some have never been to a bank before, let alone made a deposit), the post office and court offices. All of the many small businesses within easy walking distance create the perfect environment to create partnerships to train the interns in practical life and business experience; providing interviewing skills, resume writing, job searches and more.
The diversity of the shops and businesses in town allow for individual interns to choose specific fields and activities that would interest them. They mentioned that the day we talked with them, one of their interns, a young man, was going to be visiting the local radio station to record a commercial for the upcoming fundraising event “Autos for Autism”. They said that this young man was particularly interested in all things technical, and looking forward to the radio experience!
They started renovating the space in April of 2016 and did all the work themselves along with community volunteers and their very first couple interns. Over the course of the summer, their first intern was there working with them and Luann casually made small talk with him and asked, “So, are you ready for school to start?”. To which he said a resounding, “no”. That’s not surprising for most kids, but what stuck out to Luann was that his reason was because he had no friends. Even after persisting with a lighthearted “oh, sure you do”, it was a “no, really, I don’t have any friends”.
Not long after that, they took on a second intern, another young man who they put to work with the first. The connection they made as they worked together was amazing as Luann and Jessica looked on. They were chatting about video games and all kinds of things and became fast friends. The change in the confidence and demeanor was such a turn around for both of the kids. The opportunity to have someone their own age who shared similar struggles and challenges was something they didn’t have before Visions of Hope. And they hadn’t even officially opened yet!
As they shared this story with us, Luann said; “We could have stopped right there. All the work and planning and effort and time and research had been worth it if only those two kids were helped.” The spark of the idea of this program and shop had officially been fanned into a burning flame, and these two women continued on with the passion they have for helping people and ultimately changing lives.
This experience just confirmed to Luann that leaving her job she loved of 15 years in special education was ultimately the right decision. She had always imagined that she would retire from that job, but this dream kept tugging at her heart and she knew it needed to be realized. She takes care of the Visions of Hope training side. She has a more thorough, analytical way of working and willingly admits to not being creative like Jessica. They balance each other well.
Quitting a stable and secure job of 10+ years was a huge risk for Jessica, a single mom of two autistic boys. But she will tell you herself that the joy and satisfaction she gets out of this job that she is so passionate about does not even compare. She is the creative mind and heads up the details for the boutique and their free interview clothing program. She is so excited to share about the work they do and they both shared how they love coming to “not work”; because it doesn’t feel like a job.
No matter who you are or why you come through their doors, Luann and Jessica want you to feel welcome and like family. You will leave feeling confident, better and happier than when you came in.
In one corner of the expansive boutique, they have the 117 Cafe where sits a table, chairs, and books. Coffee is brewed daily for donation. Every nook of this place has a story and this corner cafe is no exception. The significance of 117 for the cafe name was simply the building address. It found another special connection when someone gave them a sign that hangs in the back of the shop in the shape of a puzzle piece (which is significant as it is the shape for autism awareness), and it has this quote from the Bible: “Every good and perfect gift is from above”, the reference is James 1:17.
The coffee they serve is a ‘Taste of the Valley’ in downtown. It is fresh roasted coffee from the Arcadia Valley Roasting Company. AV Roasting Company created a special blend specifically for Visions of Hope that you can purchase by the bag. A portion of the sale goes to fund the work there. The blend is called “Morning Hope”.
Speaking of funds, the whole program is completely run on donations. They have no government funding and they hold only four fundraisers a year. They depend solely on the support and donations of the supportive community. They receive clothing donations from the community and the interns help to clean, sort, organize and display them in the store. All profits from the store go back to Visions of Hope. Any clothing that is not fit for selling in the boutique is passed on to The Hub Hand-to-Hand Recycling.
The boutique and program officially opened in August of last year (2016). Since then, they have had 24 interns in the program already. The program is currently full and they are accepting applications for prospective interns that will be added to the wait list.
Over and over, Luann and Jessica expressed their gratitude to the unbelievable outpouring of support, donations, partners and volunteers that have come from the local community.
How can you be a part of the work?
2017 marks the eighth year for the annual Home Grown Farm Tour. On August 26th, enjoy the self-guided tour featuring eight venues highlighting the diversity of local farms and nearly 250 years of history in Washington County.
Read all about how this local non-profit is reaching families in our community to provide support and encouragement specifically to moms in need and how you can be a part!
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