Many of us learn at a very young age that the unknown can be fraught with complications. Even those of us who retain an open mind can still find ourselves avoiding people, places and things that are outside of our comfort zone. That’s why programs like the one found at Ramble on Pearl are invaluable and necessary. Ramble, a high-end, nonprofit boutique located in Boulder, serves as a training facility for people with developmental disabilities, a largely marginalized population that is often relegated to the sidelines. It’s the only program in Colorado that fully prepares graduates for independent employment in the community, setting them up for successful careers in any field they choose.
The idea for Ramble came to Connie Minden, who has a daughter with developmental disabilities, four years ago when she attended a retreat. “I learned you get to a point in your life when you’ve given to your family and maybe your church for many years, so it’s time to look beyond that to how you can help the greater community,” she said. “I had been complaining for many years about the lack of training available to integrate people like my daughter into the community and competitive job world.”
Her husband, Andy, went on to explain that although the Boulder Valley School District does have programs to help kids with developmental disabilities transition from high school into the job world, it isn’t perfect and doesn’t prepare them for real, independent opportunities. “They don’t have the work experience many of us had in high school delivering newspapers or whatever, and employers don’t necessarily understand how to bring them in or appreciate their potential,” he said. “None of the experiences fit our daughter, so we looked at it and said there has to be a better way.” That’s when they decided to tackle these issues themselves.
The Minden’s initial plan was to open a past-season boutique, but they quickly realized that wouldn’t work for them and switched gears. “We felt strongly about an upscale boutique because we wanted this population to be seen in something other than a Goodwill or grocery store,” said Connie. “We wanted to change the community’s perception, to show people these individuals aren’t limited to certain venues.”
Initially, the Mindens were going to hire employees to work in the store and get job experience, but they realized they could impact more people if they served as a classroom, a gateway to the future rather than an end. Neither Connie nor Andy had any retail experience before they embarked on this adventure, but members of the community rallied to help bring the vision to life. A local design team retrofitted the space pro bono, and Colorado brands like Krimson Klover and Icelandic Design donated inventory. “I think the mission itself is what grabs people,” said Ramble board member, Heather Ringoen. “This population has so much to offer, all they need is to get their foot in the door.”
The program at Ramble begins with a three-week assessment, during which the team figures out if they can provide what specific individuals need and whether that person will benefit from the program. If it is a match, the person becomes an apprentice and receive wages for the hours they work. Ramble currently has three apprentices and can have up to five, each individually trained by store manager and job coach, Megan McKean. McKean previously worked for Boulder County, designing community-based programs for people with developmental disabilities before joining the Ramble family. “I found this niche within Ramble that I can really help people find a lot of independence through work,” she explained. “It is absolutely rewarding to watch the apprentices gain skills and check off boxes as they master tasks and learn to become independent.”
After three months, the apprentices are ready to apply for any job they wish with any business they choose. McKean and the rest of the team facilitate that process by accompanying apprentices during interviews and helping them transition what they learned at Ramble into their new job tasks. “We can tell employers we have this amazing, dependable individual ready to work,” said Connie. “We don’t say do us a favor because we know how this person will impact their business in a very positive way.” New employers don’t even need to train program graduates. Ramble sends in coaches to set up a support system and help them assimilate. Jeff Peters, the proprietor at Ted’s Montana Grill, hired a graduate as a dishwasher at the restaurant. “Brian comes to work with a smile on his face and is happy all night long,” said Peters. “Everyone loves having him and helping him succeed in any way they can.” It’s proof that the program works.
Once graduates have mastered the tasks at their new jobs, the coaches take a step back but are always available to help at any time. Miah Yager is a perfect example of the kind of bond created during training at Ramble. Yager was one of the first apprentices. After several years working at Rags Consignments, she decided she wanted to change career paths and returned to Ramble for support. “I wanted to take a break from all of the craziness,” said Yager. “I feel confident, because I know a lot of people here, and I’m passionate about talking to people and hearing their stories, so it’s fun and I’m learning.” Yager is still figuring out what she’d like to do next, but the Ramble team will be there every step of the way.
Although Connie and Andy have celebrated many successes in the three years Ramble has been open, they still face major challenges. “I think it’s interesting that there are a lot of different subpopulations in our culture that don’t necessarily get equal opportunity,” said Andy. “This population is probably low on that profile, with 85 percent unemployed nationally, that shows you right there that they are left behind.” The Mindens also struggle with consumer’s perception of the boutique. Because it is a nonprofit, people assume that the merchandise is either consignment or used clothing. It couldn’t be farther from the truth. Connie regularly sources the highest quality products she can find, like hand-knitted sweaters and hats made in Nepal.
As for the future, the Mindens have plans to create satellite programs, so they can help more people. For example, they are working on partnerships with local warehouse fulfillment centers, so those apprentices with social anxiety can still gain all of the benefits of the program without having to be in a retail setting. They are also investigating hotels and senior centers as employment opportunities. ” This place is really coming into its own, so it’s time to see where else we can make an impact,” said Connie. “We see some other populations, like people with traumatic brain injuries, that can also thrive, given the right opportunities.” In the meantime, these agents for social change will keep educating everyone who walks in the store. “We have become ambassadors to the awakening of the potentiality around the world,” Andy explained. “Yes, probably 99 percent of our impact is here in Boulder County, but there is that 1 percent of changing the world’s perception of what is possible.”
Photography by Meg O’Neill