Down syndrome girl designs attractive tote bags


  • People
  • Tuesday, 18 Feb 2020

Julia Tyler (right) laying out a pattern she wishes to silk-screen as her job coach Liv Helgesen works on the actual silk-screening process. The two of them create textiles and other merchandise for Dance Happy Design.

If you heard cheers coming from Aston in Philadelphia, the United States, on Dec 10, it was from the studio of Dance Happy Design on Mount Road. That evening, Aerie – a sub-brand of the American Eagle apparel company – launched online sales of Dance Happy’s handmade canvas tote bags.

There were even giddier eruptions when the holiday season ended, because Aerie – pleased with how well the bags sold – decided to order more merchandise for this year, said Dance Happy co-founder Emily Scott.

This is sensational news. Not just because a business is getting national traction. But because one of its founders has a disability that, in the not-too-distant past, might’ve kept her from working at all.

Not that anyone had entrepreneurship in mind when Dance Happy’s co-founders Scott, Julia Tyler, and Liv Helgesen first met in 2012. That’s when Scott, owner of a small boutique called Compendium (then located in Swarthmore, now located in West Chester) hired Tyler to work part-time at the shop.

Julia Tyler (left) distributes the paint through the silk screen as her job coach Liv Helgesen makes sure the paint is distributed evenly as they work on placemats for Dance Happy Design.Julia Tyler (left) distributes the paint through the silk screen as her job coach Liv Helgesen makes sure the paint is distributed evenly as they work on placemats for Dance Happy Design.

Tyler, now 24, has Down syndrome and lives in Wallingford with her parents, Karen and Jim. Back then, she was a year from completing the special-needs programme at Strath Haven High School, and her parents had to figure out what she would do upon graduation.

To help them, the school district hired Community Integrated Services (CIS), which partners with businesses and organisations to find jobs for people with disabilities. CIS approached Scott to see if Tyler might help out at Compendium.

Tyler is quiet, not very verbal, and moves slowly. Scott thought she’d do fine unpacking boxes when the weekly shipment of new inventory arrived. Working with a CIS job-support coach, Helgesen, Tyler also tagged and hung clothing. The tryout turned into a weekly position.

Quiet and not very verbal, Julia Tyler throws herself into creating beautiful items. Here, she uses a hair dryer to dry the paint on her silk-screened placemats. Quiet and not very verbal, Julia Tyler throws herself into creating beautiful items. Here, she uses a hair dryer to dry the paint on her silk-screened placemats.

But Helgesen, whose background is in art, wanted Tyler to be creatively challenged. So she set up an art studio in Compendium’s basement and taught her how to silk-screen images – cutout geometric shapes that Tyler created – onto canvas.

Scott would then sew the finished fabric into funky tote bags, pillow covers, table runners, and the like, which were sold at Compendium, online, and at craft fairs.

In 2016, they formalised their partnership, naming it Dance Happy because Tyler, who is always happy, loves to dance. Revenues were not huge, but the product line was growing, as were Tyler’s abilities and sense of independence.

Julia Tyler leans in for a little hug from her job coach Liv Helgesen.Julia Tyler leans in for a little hug from her job coach Liv Helgesen.

In 2017, I wrote about Dance Happy in Falling Off the Cliff, a four-part series about the lives of adults with developmental disabilities. While many can and want to work, only 34% of them are employed, and only 26% of those jobs are full-time. That’s because employers rarely see these men and women beyond their disabilities.

But Scott, at Compendium, saw in Tyler a focused, pleasant and determined young woman who’d help make the store better. And Helgesen saw in her a bright, light spirit that deserved artistic expression. Everyone deserves to be seen, heard and known that way.

Last winter, Scott was invited to speak at “Embrace Ambition”, an annual event sponsored by the Tory Burch Foundation, which aims to support and inspire women entrepreneurs. Scott spoke of Dance Happy’s mission to “empower and celebrate differences”.

In attendance was an Aerie executive who approached Scott afterward, asked about Dance Happy, and then later – unbeknownst to Scott – ordered a Dance Happy tote bag for her own inspection.

“She liked what she saw, ” said Scott. A few months of discussions with Aerie followed, resulting in an order in October from Aerie for three styles of Dance Happy totes to be sold online during the 2019 holiday season.

“It was a thrill and also so intense, ” said Scott about the short amount of time that she, Tyler, and Helgesen had to fill Aerie’s order. By corporate standards, the order was not huge, but, she said, “Each item is handmade, and there’s only three of us doing the work, and I still had the store to run. We worked nonstop.”

Within days, one of their bags disappeared from the Aerie website, which worried Scott: Did a higher-up at Aerie not like it? Did a customer complain? But then she learned the reason it was gone.

“It sold out!” she said.

Scott is now in talks with Aerie about a new order, and said that, this summer, a second large retailer will also begin selling Dance Happy products (she cannot identify the retailer until the company goes public with its own announcement this spring).

What has been gratifying about these sales, she said, is that “they aren’t pity buys. These are corporations with high standards. They like that our merchandise is beautiful, of high quality, and that there’s a great story behind it.”

As for Tyler’s reaction, well, she’s a woman of few words (indeed, she is too shy to be interviewed, but will dance happily if you ask her to).

But, said Scott, Tyler giggled excitedly when she saw photos of her totes on Aerie’s website.

Most importantly, said Scott, Tyler has started referring to the Dance Happy merchandise as “my work”. Which is new for her.

“She feels a real sense of ownership, ” said Scott. “She’s so proud.” – Tribune News Service/The Philadelphia Inquirer/Ronnie Polaneczky

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