Sweet Heat Jam offers opportunities to special needs students

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By ANTHONY FLORES

  Every Monday and Thursday morning at LIFE Church in Leander, the aroma of jalapenos, bell peppers, and habaneros fills the air. These are the days when students from Liberty Hill ISD’s special needs program arrive at their paid internship with Sweet Heat Jams.

Nolan Stilwell is the mind behind Sweet Heat Jams. Nolan has Down Syndrome but doesn’t let that get in the way of his culinary dreams. With the support of his parents Randy and Christine Stilwell, Nolan’s Sweet Heat Jam is on H-E-B shelves.

“The reason we started the program was that, as our son was graduating from high school, we saw that he wanted to do something culinary,” said Stilwell. “There wasn’t a program available, so we said since there isn’t a program, let’s create one. This was 10

years ago.”

  Inspired by Nolan’s success and personal growth, Randy and Christine Stilwell realized they could help other kids like Nolan by employing them through an 18 plus internship program.

“Not only was Nolan able to work, but we were also able to bring in additional students,” said Stilwell. “To us, that’s the greatest blessing. It’s not just about Nolan. It’s about creating opportunities for these young people who we feel still need overseeing but don’t need hand over hand. They might not have great success in a retail type of environment, but they flourish here. They still have some independence, and they’re making decisions.”

  An average day in the kitchen is four hours long. Workdays start with the Stilwells welcoming their employees with a round of applause and a thank you. After that, it’s serious business. Prepping vegetables and fruits, working the stove, filling jars with jams, and doing the dishes are only some of their daily tasks.

  Walker Raney is from Liberty Hill. He started working with Sweet Heat in 2018 and since then has flourished, opening up in ways he hadn’t before.

  “I love cutting stuff and doing the dishes. Sampling stuff is good, too,” said Rainey. “We usually have to clean the vegetables and get them ready. It’s invigorating. It feels good to be working here. I started after my birthday. It’s an exciting job for me. I was a bit nervous at first, and then I got over it when I made a friend out of Nolan. It helps my confidence.”

   Nolan’s friendship is the first step for many of the kids involved in the program. He serves as a guide and mentor, showing others what to do. It’s a regular occurrence for Nolan to move around the kitchen, helping others when he sees them struggling. As each student grows and learns their tasks, they take on the roles of mentors as well.

  “They have to teach others,” said Christine Stilwell. “It’s critical that they get that opportunity because most of their lives, people have been instructing them. This gives them a new power they’ve never had.”

  Austin Neusaenger is a student restricted to a wheelchair. He uses a computer to communicate. Despite his limitations, Neausaenger is still a part of the team. When he comes in to help, the first person to offer guidance is Nolan.

  With experience under their belts, Raney and fellow Liberty Hill graduate Gabe Callaway join Nolan in aiding other students.

  “I’ve been showing Grady since he got here in the summer,” said Rainey. “Now that I have a lot of time and experience, I’ve been showing others how to do things and helping them.”

  Mistakes in the kitchen are inevitable. When one of the students makes a mistake, they get some guidance and are right back at their task. For Christine and Randy, the kids learning from their mistakes is critical to their independence.

  “When they make mistakes, it’s about us bringing them back in,” said Christine Stilwell. “I can have them working on the stove without any issues. We really like to oversee and let them do their work. We only fill in when we need to. I feel like we can step away. We don’t leave the room but we can trust them.”

  The atmosphere of the Sweet Heat Kitchen is robust. Conversations about pro wrestling, video games, sports, and new jam flavors permeate the air at all times.

“They all have their little isms, the things they like doing to make each other laugh,” said Christine Stilwell. “Sometimes students we’re working with need to be corralled when they start going down a rabbit hole a bit. It’s never a dull moment here with them.”

  As the school year ends and summer vacation begins, many of the students leave the program. The focus shifts squarely onto the core group of workers.

  “Our core team will stay the same over the summer,” she said. “We’ve asked them to be with us full time. In the fall, we’ll probably bring on new students. When they have mastered things, we ask them to come in and work with the core team. They take the responsibility of helping new students get comfortable.”

  With their business model, a success, and a group of eager workers, the Stilwells are proud of where the program is going in the future.

  “Within this nurtured environment, their success continues to outshine any obstacles,” said Christine Stilwell. “We tell them they have ownership of the company. This gives them an incentive and lets them know they’re part of things. This is their product just as much as it’s ours.”

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