‘Jam with attitude’ makes its way to Liberty Hill

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By Rachel Madison

If you walk into Fellowship Church in Liberty Hill on any given Tuesday or Thursday, the first thing you’ll notice is the delicious smell of peppers, from jalapeños to habaneros, wafting from the kitchen.

That’s because Nolan Stilwell, creator of Sweet Heat Jam Co., has recently set up shop in Fellowship Church’s kitchen, where he produces 13 different flavors of pepper “jam with attitude” in small batches.

Stilwell, who has down syndrome, started Sweet Heat Jam Co. in 2011 in Katy with the help of his mother, Christine, who at the time was a grant writer for a nonprofit organization called ARTreach.

“As with every parent that has a special needs child, there comes a crossroads in high school where you’re like, ‘What is available for my child once they graduate?’” Christine said. “We knew Nolan had strengths just like every person has their strengths, and we wanted to find him a job he loved. I asked [ARTreach’s] executive director if we could start a culinary arts program for our special needs population, and Sweet Heat was born.”

The program did so well in the Katy area that Sweet Heat Jam Co. grew legs of its own, Christine said.

“From there we developed our own program,” she said. “The end result was the jam, but what we did was bring young people with special needs who were interested in culinary arts to come work alongside Nolan and learn. These were gray area students—those who still needed overall supervision but had more skills than someone who needed one-on-one help.”

Students in the program were responsible for every aspect of the business, from learning to chop to ordering inventory to washing dishes properly in a commercial kitchen. They did not pay tuition—instead they were treated like employees and earned minimum wage. The business had five regular employees and several others who completed a three-month internship and went on to work elsewhere.

“This program wasn’t just about doing the same thing over and over,” Christine said. “A lot of times young people with special needs start to regress after high school because they aren’t interacting with people and don’t have much responsibility because they are staying home. This gave them an opportunity to train each other and learn from each other.”

The Stilwells’ business was growing and thriving in Katy for years—Nolan even earned fourth place in H-E-B’s Quest for Texas Best contest in 2014. But when Hurricane Harvey hit last August, everything changed.

“When Hurricane Harvey came it took our family’s home and that started a new chapter for us,” Christine said. “For us, we believe it was God telling us to keep moving. He had other work for us in another location, so we decided to move to Georgetown. Now that we’re in the Williamson County area, we want to rebuild our business and bring in other students looking for the same opportunity [we gave students in Katy].”

Because the Stilwells are new to the area, Nolan and Christine are running the jam business on their own, with the occasional help of father and husband, Randy, but they hope to find more employees, specifically young adults with special needs, to help them grow their business once again.

Nolan does everything from chopping up to 25 pounds of jalapeños a week to processing all the fruit, but is hoping other young adults in the area will come work with him.

“I pray for friends every day,” he said.

Christine added that she’d love to have some adult volunteers to assist employees as the business starts to grow.

“Working with these young people is wonderful as far as seeing them blossom,” she said. “We had one young man who when he started, he didn’t talk. He had autism. But within the first month, he was the joke maker. He just felt confident in what he was doing. He found things he was good at. That’s what he needed.

“The only thing that would negate someone from working here is if it would bring harm to them or others in the kitchen,” Christine said. “We are working with things like knives, hot water and hot peppers. There is a certain level of safety we have to be concerned about.”

The jam used to be sold at H-E-B, but due to the flood, the Stilwells asked if they could pull out because they couldn’t meet production needs.

“Because Nolan lost his garden in the flood, H-E-B has donated peppers to Nolan for this year so we can stay in business,” Christine said. “We are still in some boutique markets, like Great Harvest Bread Co., and if we get employees again, we’ll consider going back into H-E-B. We will also have our jam at Mesquite Creek Outfitters in Georgetown soon.”

The Stilwells’ biggest obstacle to relocating their business from Katy was finding somewhere they could make the jam. After a few different options fell through, they found Fellowship Church.

“Fellowship was our last interview so to speak,” Christine said. “We came in and started to tell our story. Pastor Michael [Wright] said, ‘I don’t need to hear your story. I already love what y’all do. What can we do for you?’ That still gives me goosebumps. This church is a walking breathing example of Christ. We love being here amongst this group.”

Wright said he is thrilled to have Sweet Heat Jam Co. in house and added that having them on site is just one more way Fellowship is a part of the community.

“We saw this as an opportunity to perhaps reach people who didn’t feel like they had a place,” he said. “It was a no brainer for us. We’re excited to see it grow and have other families get involved. They’ve brought such a spirit of joy here.”

Over the years, Nolan and his crew have developed 13 flavors of jam.

Peach Heat is made with peaches from Fredericksburg. Texas Apple Pie is made with chunks of apple, cinnamon, jalapeños and red peppers. Holiday Heat boasts cranberries, orange zest and jalapeños.

Nolan’s personal favorite? Mango Heat, because “it’s just good,” he said.

Each jar sells for $7.50 and can be used in a variety of recipes. Most of the jams work well as an appetizer with cream cheese and crackers, Christine said, but can also be used as a glaze for meat and fish and in many other recipes, which can be found on the company’s website.

Overall, the Stilwells are excited about their new opportunity to grow their jam business in Liberty Hill and are looking forward to making a difference in the community.

“We have to see that these young people want to continue to have purpose in their community,” Christine said. “If we don’t give that opportunity to them, we’re losing a lot of potential. It enhances their lives and anybody’s who works with them. And the jam is also amazing.”

For more information on Sweet Heat Jam Co. or to order online, visit www.sweetheatjam.com.

Rachel@LHIndependent.com

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