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‘A lot more opportunities’: Penn-Mar helps Carroll residents with developmental disabilities launch business ventures

Sarah O'Keefe, 26, of Westminster with Kathy Poindexter, her nurse, got into candlemaking at Change Inc. just before the pandemic and has grown it into her own business, Sassy Sarah Scents.
Sarah O'Keefe, 26, of Westminster with Kathy Poindexter, her nurse, got into candlemaking at Change Inc. just before the pandemic and has grown it into her own business, Sassy Sarah Scents. (Dylan Slagle/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Penn-Mar Human Services of Carroll County was founded in 1981 as a provider of services for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The coronavirus pandemic has presented many challenges this year, but Penn-Mar has continued to help Carroll County residents seek out new and creative business ventures through its residential, respite, educational day learning center and community-based programs.

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Jennifer Mettrick, chief strategy officer of Penn-Mar, said the organization is continuously looking for innovative ways to support people. Their approach is to help these individuals be as independent in this process as possible.

“There’s a movement towards really making sure that all of our services are person-centered and that the person is driving how they want support, when they want support, and what really works best for them,” Mettrick said. “That can be challenging for providers and I feel like we’re always trying to push the envelope there and make sure we’re challenging ourselves to put the person first.”

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Sarah O’Keefe has quadriplegia, caused by encephalitis when she was 8 years old. She is unable to move or speak, but communicates her thoughts and feelings through facial expressions. Through Penn-Mar’s partnership with Change Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides person-centered programs and services to people in Maryland with IDD, O’Keefe was able to start her own candle-making business.

O’Keefe worked with Stacey Latchaw, a quality coordinator at the Penn-Mar day program O’Keefe attended, on a variety of arts and crafts projects prior to settling on making candles.

“Sarah is very cognitive,” said Kathy Poindexter, O’Keefe’s private nurse of 13 years. “She has a lot of facial expressions and answers ‘Yes’ by blinking her eyes and pressing her lips together. … She understands everything and has a good sense of humor.

“That’s why we named the business ‘Sarah’s Sassy Scents’ because she’s extremely sassy.”

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Sarah O'Keefe, 26, of Westminster with Kathy Poindexter, her nurse, got into candlemaking at Change Inc. just before the pandemic and has grown it into her own business, Sassy Sarah Scents.
Sarah O'Keefe, 26, of Westminster with Kathy Poindexter, her nurse, got into candlemaking at Change Inc. just before the pandemic and has grown it into her own business, Sassy Sarah Scents. (Dylan Slagle/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Poindexter researched how to make candles in February and started working with O’Keefe in choosing jars, pillars and votives with different shaped containers, scents and colors. Through trial and error, they began creating the candles by manually pouring the wax into individual containers.

Poindexter said O’Keefe’s favorite colors are pink and purple, so they have made many candles in those colors. Staff members at Penn-Mar test the candles for quality before O’Keefe and Poindexter post them for sale on O’Keefe’s Sarah’s Sassy Scents Facebook page.

O’Keefe and Poindexter make about 10 candles per week and O’Keefe has expressed an interest in creating “mandles,” a men’s candle line. She sells her candles to family and friends and is focused on making custom orders as well.

“We’re limited to one mold per candle and you have to let it dry a whole entire day,” Poindexter said. “We work with all different kinds of waxes like soy and paraffin. Sarah doesn’t use her hands or anything but she’s with me when I’m doing it agreeing or disagreeing with me about what to do.”

Creating something for people to enjoy is meaningful for O’Keefe, and being a small business owner gives her a sense of accomplishment. Her father, Dennis O’Keefe, said she likes to interact with customers when delivering the products and they have made deliveries in Westminster, Eldersburg and Columbia.

“She likes to be large and in charge,” Poindexter said. “She likes to be the boss and oversee the fragrances and shapes. It’s her quality time and she likes to listen to music most of the time.”

“They take over our kitchen, turn the music up,” Dennis O’Keefe added. “We just stay in the other room while they’re hard at work.”

Derek Hamburg, 28, was recruited by Francis Scott Key High School last fall to announce home games for the Eagles’ boys varsity soccer team and jumped at the opportunity to do so. Hamburg has an unspecified developmental disability and has been an avid sports fan since he was young, which led to him developing the idea to start a sports podcast.

Derek Hamburg, 28, was recruited by Francis Scott Key High School to announce home games for the Eagles’ boys varsity soccer team.
Derek Hamburg, 28, was recruited by Francis Scott Key High School to announce home games for the Eagles’ boys varsity soccer team. (Courtesy photo)

Latchaw helped Hamburg begin the process of creating the podcast, Hamburg’s Huddle, to share his love and knowledge of University of Maryland athletics and other sports, an admiration that began at an early age. Hamburg submitted a poll to Penn-Mar staff members via SurveyMonkey.com with name ideas for the podcast and Hamburg’s Huddle generated the most votes.

“When my dad was alive, we went to a lot of the Ravens games and we had club level seats,” Hamburg said. “I watch a lot of sports and some of my favorite teams are the Ravens, Orioles and Capitals.”

Hamburg, a Winters Mill High School graduate, said his longtime dream is to be a sports broadcaster and he hopes this podcast generates good conversation with other sports fans across the state. Much of the college sports season has been postponed due to the pandemic, but Hamburg has been using his time to conduct practice interviews to prepare for the podcast’s launch.

“I want to get the word out to Maryland college sports fans,” Hamburg said. “I want to be the person to give people updates on how teams are doing in every sport for all the college sports at Maryland.”

Derek Hamburg, 28, was recruited by Francis Scott Key High School last fall to announce home games for the Eagles’ boys varsity soccer team.
Derek Hamburg, 28, was recruited by Francis Scott Key High School last fall to announce home games for the Eagles’ boys varsity soccer team. (Courtesy photo)

Mettrick said there is a certification process that Change Inc. and Penn-Mar staff have to go through in order to acquire the skills they need to walk people through the discovery process to employment. The process takes anywhere from three to six months to match employers with these individuals to help them reach their goals.

“It’s very much focused on people’s strengths and not necessarily their disability,” Mettrick said. “We can always find ways to provide direct support to get over some of those barriers of someone’s disability. We want their passions and interest and what makes things work for them to be our focus.

“It really opens up a lot more opportunities.”

Sarah O'Keefe, 26, of Westminster with Kathy Poindexter, her nurse, got into candlemaking just before the pandemic and has grown it into her own business, Sassy Sarah Scents.
Sarah O'Keefe, 26, of Westminster with Kathy Poindexter, her nurse, got into candlemaking just before the pandemic and has grown it into her own business, Sassy Sarah Scents. (Dylan Slagle/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

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