The Blue Umbrella sells hand-crafted merchandise from Arkansans with disabilities

By: - November 25, 2022 7:30 am

DHS staff were on hand to welcome craftspersons from the Arkansas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired who toured the Blue Umbrella store for the first time in 2019. They produce hand-crafted pens for the store that sold out by the end of the week. (Stephen Thornton/Arkansas Department of Human Services)

A little store nestled in downtown Little Rock offers a refreshing break from the busyness and consumerism of the holiday shopping season.

It offers customers products handmade by an Arkansan, and the dollars spent have an impact beyond that goes well beyond a paycheck for those artists and craftsmen who made the items in the store.

In the lobby of the Arkansas Department of Human Services’ headquarters, visitors will find the Blue Umbrella.

Inside, there are artisan candles made by residents at the Arkadelphia Human Development Center; greeting cards from artists at the Conway Human Development Center; magnets sculpted by a young Arkansan with autism named Jeremiah and much more.

Each artist receives the proceeds from the sale of their items. Since the store opened in 2019, DHS leaders have noticed a positive impacts and more confidence from those the agency serves who sell their goods in the store.

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A sense of community, belonging and employment are major social determinants of health, said Melissa Weatherton, director of the state Division of Developmental Disability Services.

Melissa Weatherton (Arkansas Department of Human Services)

“We think people are happier that work,” Weatherton said. “We think they have a better sense of inclusion.”

‘Making people happy’

The store offers a marketplace for Arkansans with disabilities who receive services from DHS through Medicaid.

Most of the products in the store are made by those with disabilities. A few items are from other local producers to fill out the store’s inventory and help support the mission and overhead of the store.

All the merchandise is clearly marked, and most of the goods made by those with disabilities include a description of where they came from and a little bit about those who made them.

There are items like holiday wreaths and sports decorations made by Frankie Santiago, who has lived at the Conway Human Development Center for about seven years.

“I work hard to make items for the Blue Umbrella because I like helping the store and enjoy making people happy…” he said.

“I feel proud when I see my items for sale in the store. I like to use my paychecks to buy Razorback merchandise to decorate my room at CHDC with because they’re my favorite team!”

 

Gabriel Bishara (from left), store clerk with the Blue Umbrella Training Program, Division of Developmental Disabilities Services Director Melissa Weatherton and Blue Umbrella artisan Frankie Santiago speak about the store during an appearance on THV11 in October. (Keith Metz/Arkansas Department of Human Services)

 

Origins

The Blue Umbrella grew out of the annual Fall Festival DHS hosted on Main Street in Little Rock. Department officials saw an opportunity to have a more permanent place for those with disabilities to sell their work.

A permanent store also created a place for others with disabilities to work. Store manager Erin Skrodenis works with a handful of DHS clients who staff the store and work with customers who visit.

“They’re always on you to buy something,” Skrodenkis said with a laugh. “They take pride in showing customers around the store. They know the mission and take it very seriously when someone comes in to show them things they think they’d like to buy.”

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DHS leaders aren’t aware of any similar stores operated by agencies in other states. The unique setup brought its share of difficulties during the launch in 2019, Weatherton said. For instance, they had to figure out how to organize a state government entity to remit taxes.

All the effort has been worth it, Weatherton said. Roughly 175 Arkansans with disabilities have had products for sale in the store, from those in the state’s human development centers to those who receive community-based services.

Since opening, Arkansans with disabilities have earned more than $77,620 through the Blue Umbrella.

A new holiday option

On Oct. 31, the Blue Umbrella launched its online store, opening the doors to customers from all over the United States.

Sellers have been able to watch their merchandise sell in almost real time.

“It’s been pretty exciting to see where it goes,” Weatherton said.

The store is having a Christmas sale and a Christmas open house on Friday, Dec. 2, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. that will include holiday merchandise and opportunities for photos with Santa.

The store isn’t open on Black Friday but is open on regular business days from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The online store is always open, but some items can only be found in person.

The store also offers appointment shopping or video calls to browse inventory.

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Weatherton, the Developmental Disability Services director, has an office full of products from the store — Jeramiah’s magnets, lanyards, cards, a ceramic pumpkin. She said her house is full of handmade rugs from the store.

“It’s been a really humbling experience,” Weatherton said. “[At DHS,] we set policy, we oversee services, manage providers. We pay. This is something that’s actually — not that the other work isn’t enjoyable — but this is heartwarming.”

There will be door-busters, crowds and sales at the big-box stores this holiday season, but there are 175 hardworking Arkansans who would appreciate your business too.

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Hunter Field, Arkansas Advocate
Hunter Field, Arkansas Advocate

Hunter Field is a veteran Arkansas journalist whose reporting on the state has carried him from military air strips in northwest Arkansas to soybean fields in the Arkansas delta. He spent the better part of the last decade investigating and reporting on Arkansas government and politics. For three years, he covered education policy, medical marijuana and the Arkansas General Assembly as part of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Capitol Bureau. Most recently, he was the Democrat-Gazette's projects editor, leading the newspaper's investigative team. Hunter got his start in journalism covering sports for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. A Memphis native, he enjoys smoking barbecue, kayaking and fishing in his free time.

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