Darren was born on May 3rd, 2009. For the first eleven months, life was normal. Around a year and a half old, Darren’s parents noticed he was babbling but not talking. At one point, he went mute. Over and over they heard “he’ll talk when he’s ready” but it was clear, especially to his grandmother who was a teacher for the deaf, that something was not right.
At three years old, Darren started pre-school in the special education program at their local school district. Darren was diagnosed with neurological deficit disorder, speech and language impairment, ADHD, and anxiety. Today, at almost 13 years old, he is delayed but verbal. Despite the obstacles Darren faces, he is described as one of the happiest kids on earth.
Darren’s mom, Jolene, shared that she started looking ahead and thinking about what opportunities are or would be available to Darren as he grows up. She learned that their local school district has several strong programs that help prepare students with disabilities for the workforce. Unfortunately, when those students hit 22 years old, they age out of these programs and often find themselves disconnected and without jobs and services. Jolene, and Justin, one of her closest friends, started talking about how they could bridge this gap.
One day, Jolene stumbled across a video about a bakery in Tennessee, which was employing people with disabilities.Jolene shared the video with Justin and immediately they knew this would be a journey they wanted to embark on to change lives in their local community while building a legacy for Darren. A baker himself, Justin picked up the phone and called them hoping he could gain some insight on how to start a similar business in Illinois. At this point, the owners of the bakery were just getting started and said “call us back in two years…hopefully by then we will be in a place to share our growth and knowledge.” In 2021, Justin and Jolene reached out again and were promptly invited to visit. They spent six hours talking and turning their passion into a vision and Sweet Darren’s was born. Sweet Darren’s, a bakery and ice cream shop, aims to provide sustainable, long-term career opportunities for people with disabilities.
Darren is currently working on his catch phrase. His Speech Language Pathologist suggested something along the lines of “Hi, my name is Darren and I can’t always find my words.” Darren had other ideas, though! He landed on “if you want to know about me, give me your phone.” Like a true spokesperson, he had people on Sweet Darren’s website in no time.
Jolene and Justin know they will not be able to hire everyone but they are committed to modeling how to employ people with disabilities. They want the world to see that “everyone is capable of something.” Currently, Justin and Jolene sell their products at Farmers Markets where it is not unusual for them to sell out. They also recently bought a food trailer and are in the process of opening a small baking center as a stepping stone to a larger brick and mortar store.
Say Hello Threads is thrilled to support Sweet Darren’s and we hope that you will join us!
P.s. their secret ingredient is love!