DAYTON, Wash. — Ben Huwe has a desk at Elk Drug on Main Street where he makes cards, bookmarks and gift bags to sell.

He’s done this for many years — being self-employed and quite happy. This business is his dream.

When it was nearly taken from him, in 2015, his family and friends stepped in.

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“He will tell you, this is his job,” said Ben’s mother, Sherri Huwe. “When it became clear that it was endangered, we thought, ‘OK, if this is his business, what do we have to do to keep it?'”

Ben was born 28 years ago with multiple health problems and intellectual disabilities.

He weighed just 2 pounds 10 ounces at birth, is legally blind as a result of glaucoma and optic atrophy, struggles with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and suffers from bowel problems, kidney stones and a pituitary brain tumor.

He’s endured many surgeries over the years, his mother said. So he’s familiar with hospitals, loves people and understands suffering.

When Ben was a senior at Dayton High School and needed to complete a senior project, his family and caregivers helped him tap into this empathy as well as his love for drawing.

He made cards and gift bags to take to Dayton General Hospital, Providence St. Mary Medical Center and Walla Walla General Hospital.

“He has a real love for people who are sick,” Sherri said.

The business developed from there. The Hendricksons, who owned Elk Drug then, opened a corner of their downtown shop for Ben to create and sell his products.

Sean and Andi Thurston, who bought Elk Drug several years ago, have continued to give Ben space. Through county and state services, he had a job coach to help him at his tasks for about an hour each day.

Then things changed, and Ben nearly lost his business.

Columbia County, which had previously used Blue Mountain Counseling for developmental disabilities services, contracted with Walla Walla Community Resources.

This move, otherwise a boon to Columbia County, put Ben’s business in jeopardy.

Walla Walla developmental disability services experts set to work finding jobs for their new Dayton clients. Their goal was to locate minimum-wage jobs these residents could do.

But Ben’s career — being self-employed — didn’t fit that mold, Sherri said. He was denied a job coach.

“They didn’t think it was an economically viable business,” she said. “And I knew he wasn’t going to be happy doing anything else. Changing his routine would be devastating.”

Ben could receive benefits through a community access fund, established for adults with disabilities who cannot find employment or who struggle in the work environment, but he couldn’t do that and still own his business.

“We couldn’t ask him to stop doing this,” Sherri said. “His routine is so important. His behavior, his anxiety, requires it.”

The family contacted an attorney through Northwest Justice Project, and he advised them that to contest this decision they would need to create a business plan for Ben Huwe Designs.

Having never written a business plan, Sherri contacted the Port of Columbia and discussed the process with Brad McMasters, economic development coordinator for Columbia County.

He suggested she find a third party to write the business plan and put her in touch with Mid-Columbia Tri Cities Service Corps of Retired Executives.

Donna Rassat, a SCORE representative, worked with Sherri and created the plan. It required retrieving old records, reviewing sales data, making projections and developing a marketing plan.

Ben’s family members have roles in his enterprise, according to the business plan.

His father, Ron Huwe, is the chief financial officer. Sherri is the operational manager. His brother, Ryan Huwe, is in charge of marketing. And his sister, Etta Huwe, is going to build his website.

Creating the business plan was a lot of work, but it was worth it, Sherri said.

Ben’s status has been reinstated as of March. Soon, he will be assigned a new job coach.

His 24-hour caregivers, who have continued to bring the young man to Elk Drug four days per week for an hour to draw, cut and paste cards and bookmarks, will have professional relief.

“Thank God for his caregivers,” Sherri said. “If it weren’t for them helping Ben stay on this routine, he’d just be sitting at home each day. But they’re not trained job coaches.”

Goodwill Industries will provide the job coach, whose role will be to help Ben become even more independent as the sole proprietor of his business.

Ben is thrilled. He’ll tell anyone who asks that he loves his business. He likes drawing people and knowing his products make people happy.

“And I like it because I make money to buy clothes,” he said.

© 2016 Walla Walla Union-Bulletin
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