Inside the corner space of a small Virginia shopping center, a sign reads, “Our Happy Place” over a modest shelf of dog treats. Light streams through large windows, falling across bright blue walls, as friendly as the smiling faces seated behind rows of stainless steel tables. The room is so delightfully fragrant that one might forget the artisan, bone-shaped biscuits are meant for furry customers, whose photographs dot the spaces between racks of the freshly baked product.
Since 1975, ECHO, a nonprofit providing lifelong support for adults with disabilities, has equipped participants through vocational training, community integration, and comprehensive disability employment. Its newest internal venture, ECHO Barkery, wraps ECHO’s renowned services in fresh, paw-printed packaging. Since December 2020, the staff of the Barkery has been mixing, rolling, stamping, cutting, baking, and packing dog treats by hand.
Making the Sun Shine
ECHO Barkery is just one of the many income-earning opportunities that ECHO offers to its members, marrying robust programming and a thoughtful, bespoke approach. The crux of ECHO’s job placement program is what Todd Goldian, director of community outreach and fundraising at ECHO, calls the “perfect fit.” ECHO’s group-supported employment utilizes a team of people to operate a job site together, supported by a coach, and earn an income. “We talk about the dignity of a paycheck because there's a sense of purpose,” says Todd. But money isn’t the biggest factor. “We're not going to put somebody in the Barkery that doesn't like to make dog bones. But when we find the person that really enjoys it, it's like a lifelong match and it's like the sun shines every single day.”
Personal interests such as pets and home baking often draw participants to the Barkery. Kelly enjoys cooking with her family and loves her dog, Sophie, who is quite fond of the Barkery treats. On her first day at the Barkery, after transitioning away from a different partner site, Kelly was nervous, even shaking. But now, “I wake up [and say], ‘Oh, I get to go to my bakery,’ and then, ‘Oh, the [most] amazing day ever.’”
Nicole, a contagiously bubbly participant, has multiple jobs within the ECHO network, but her role at the Barkery is her favorite. She loves visitors, bestowing a warm and enthusiastic greeting to anyone who walks through the door. “I think I have a customer service [sensibility], I work well with people.”
As ECHO welcomes new participants into their community, Pete Yuska, the Barkery’s general manager, says, “We'll evaluate them, try and find out what their interests are, where they'd be a good fit.” If they fit well with the environment and possess the right job skills, they’re a match.
Todd says the care taken to find this personalized approach benefits both participants and the partners who hire them. He stresses that they’re not simply a temp firm. In fact, the participants rarely leave after “the right fit” is found. “We've been mowing the lawn at the FAA since the '70s”, remarks Todd. “There's tremendous value in that knowing that you've got the right person in the right job and will be there for quite some time.”
Though ECHO has myriad work sites, the Barkery is one of only two internal options for which the ECHO team is in complete control. And it’s working. The Barkery’s sense of community is stunning.
“Everybody's friends here,” says Warren Curtis, Pete’s assistant. The employee of the month ceremony is among his favorite occasions. “They'll all write down a name, and we'll do a big ‘ole drawing where we write the names on the board. And after every vote, … they're so excited. Then we get to give them an award, and we buy them lunch, and we'll take their picture, and it goes on social media.” He says that while it may take some time for a new participant to warm up to him, eventually he’s getting daily hugs and updates. “They're as genuine as it comes. … no masks, no filters. It's just them. That’s awesome.”
A New Recipe for Joy
As businesses closed their doors in the spring of 2020, many ECHO participants were left without a job. “We had no partner sites to send anybody to. While we opened back up quickly, other people did not. The dignity that comes with the paycheck for our participants was put to a halt,” says Todd. “[Our] idea was to come up with an internal source of employment. It was an immediate need.” When a small dog biscuit company, also employing adults with disabilities, closed, ECHO purchased the enterprise, acquired its distribution (including several Whole Foods locations), and rebranded the product. Thus, the ECHO Barkery was born.
Just as the Barkery itself was formed in a crisis, many of the core staff were suddenly looking for work as life rerouted during the pandemic. Pete had a career in national and international trade shows, an industry that abruptly shut down as public gatherings stopped. He was hired by the Barkery to transform their concept into a viable business. “First and foremost I want this to be a sustainable venture.” He understands that, in order for the Barkery to continue providing services and income to the participants, it has to be financially successful. “We have a lot of those same business challenges that any small business has. … If we don't have income coming in, it's hard to provide those services.”
Warren, too, had an internship fall through. When he saw a food service job listing for ECHO, he applied, not realizing the position would overlap with his family experience. “I grew up with an aunt with down syndrome, so that was always a big part of my life,” Curtis remarked. "When I found a job that blended both the background in food service and working with adults with disabilities, it meshed well with me and became a job that I didn't think really was out there.”
Whichever path brought them to the Barkery’s door, “It’s been very fulfilling to work here,” says Pete. The team unanimously agrees. Warren, who is known to add quotes, jokes, a fact of the day, or illustrations to a large dry-erase board every morning, says, “This is a working environment, but at the end of the day, we have kind of a special thing here where we get to make it fun.”
“I think we get sometimes characterized … [as if] this is a sad place,” explains Todd, “but the truth of it is that this is a place for joy.”
Getting There, Growing There
When adults with disabilities age out of the educational system, wading through next steps can be daunting to families relying on the systemic support and routine of school programming. This is why ECHO’s nexus of services is so comprehensive, alleviating the pressure points that families experience as they navigate employment alongside their loved one.
“I don't think people have a clear idea of how vast ECHO is as a whole,” says Todd. “Barkery employs  of our participants, but the truth of it is, we have 100 participants that are in employment at ECHO. We have 31 partner sites around the county here and in Fairfax that take part in our employment program. Out of 171 total participants, 70 are in day support. Those day-support programs are robust. They are fun, they are active, and they're important.”
Every workday, Barkery participants are guided onto a small bus parked outside the business, driven by an Employment Support Specialist, bringing them safely home. The impact of this service, when multiplied across ECHO's entire network of jobs, cannot be understated. ECHO’s fleet of 31 vehicles travels a collective 34,000 miles each month. “It's hard to manage 31 vehicles to drive that much and support 170 people moving around from place to place,” says Todd. “It's hard to manage that. But it's important and that's why we do it.”
Transportation is one of the biggest obstacles to independence and employment for adults with disabilities. Todd explains, “How folks get around is a serious challenge, especially in a highly populated area like Northern Virginia. If we have a participant that lives out in Fairfax, but works out in Loudoun, that's a pretty common scenario.” Transporting other family-members to work in addition to oneself is time-consuming and energy-draining. ECHO’s transportation service allows families to recover time. “The comfort that comes along with that not only helps the participants that are joining the ECHO program, but helps the households,” says Todd.“[T]he guardians can now become part of the workforce.”
The perpetual problem-solving spirit at ECHO is remarkable. At the Barkery, Pete and Warren are presently developing a vocational training program called the ECHO Academy. For now, it is specifically designed for the Barkery—a test pilot for expanding the program into industries outside of food service. Warren, who will act as lead instructor, says the program will teach them new abilities and sharpen the ones they already have. He has been instrumental in developing the program curriculum, saying, “The end objective would be to teach them these skills, and eventually, maybe they're qualified to go out and find a job in the public without assistance.”
The Academy builds on the skill-centered confidence-bolstering already in the DNA at the Barkery. Nicole feels great pride in her changing roles and increased responsibility since beginning her tenure here. “When I first started, it was just making biscuits.” As Nicole's skills improved, she was made “Head Inspector,” acting as quality assurance before the biscuits are packaged. “[I’m] a control freak,” she explains, grinning. “If I see something not right I say, ‘This needs to change.’"
“We’ve got some leaders,” says Warren. One participant, David, will often encourage Olga, who struggles with English and can become frustrated. “We don't have to tell him anything. … He'll go over things with her and kind of just reinforce that she's doing a good job and that she's part of the team. And it's just one of those qualities that is really nice to see.” Nicole also takes initiative to help her fellow participants. “I can notice sometimes when people do not look happy, so I try to cheer them up.”
In developing the Academy, the Barkery aims to become a launching pad for greater independence of its participants, a shift that would be unequivocally celebrated. Still, Warren says, “It would be hard for us to lose a bunch of great employees, but that is the goal… We know they're capable already.”
Discussing two members of the Barkery team, Warren explains, “Josh instantly jumps on the dough here in the mixer and just knows what he's doing. Olga, [today] was her first day on the roller. I showed her this morning, and she didn't need help the rest of the day.” Participants are involved in every aspect of production, from making the dough to sealing the packages of biscuits. “They don't need direction. That is huge because when I started, we were helping them with each biscuit. Now, it's a well-oiled machine.”
Warren acknowledges, “We aren't robots here.” Increased demand for product begets increased automation, which Pete assures aides, rather than hinders, the involvement of participants, giving them yet another new skill to add to their repertoire. “The automation isn't there to supplant anyone's jobs, it's actually allowed us to get them to learn higher level skills. Instead of just rolling the dough out, and cutting the dog biscuits out by hand, they're now involved in the fulfillment end of the product.”
Whether cranking dough through a shiny, new machine or gingerly placing biscuits in perfectly straight lines on trays, the participants are growing in countless ways alongside the masterly counseling of their team. “I used to get upset easily, and … I'm learning how to cope with those feelings,” says Nicole. “I really, really get uptight and not do so well. But I have a supervisor back at ECHO. His name is Tim. He's taught me how to [notice] those emotions when something is coming up and I can feel it.” She says she feels both supported and inspired to do more. “I would like to maybe go out in the community and start selling with Peter. And when they do the expo. They went to Giant. I would like to participate in that.”
Bringing the Barkery to You
Missionally, ECHO participants are not only gaining work-related skills but becoming integrated members of their community. Pete explains that, in the past, adults with disabilities were typically only employed in “sheltered work environments.” This means a business may hire individuals with disabilities only in a controlled environment. “That would be, [for example,] a warehouse district where they're not communicating or involved with the general public.” At the Barkery, however, the mode of operation is “community integration.” “That's bringing them out to our fundraising events at local supermarkets as a key component of what we want to achieve.”
One of the ways this integration is championed at the Barkery is through events, fundraising, and public sales (outside of grocery stores, for example). Another is through relationships with community partners, such as Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation. With over 120 dogs in their kennel, and hundreds of volunteers coming through the foundation monthly to work with the animals, Dog and Cat Rescue chews through a lot of treats.
“We're not competing with Milk-Bone...We're selling a story.”
Pete Yuska, GM, ECHO Barkery
Barkery biscuits are an item on the Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation’s wishlist. “People would actually contact the Barkery to purchase the dog treats, and after so many bags of treats were purchased, they would package them and send them to the care center" explains Dawn Wallace, executive director of the Foundation. Whenever a new box arrives, it's a wonderful surprise. “It's been a great partnership. We've shared their services on our webpage, we've featured them in our newsletter … just really sharing the good work that they're doing, … which in turn is also helping us with the dogs because we are benefiting from the product that they're making.”
Dawn was immediately drawn to the mission of the Barkery because she believes the organizations share an ethos: the pursuit of a perfect fit, where a person, or a pet, feels safe, happy, and supported. “When it comes to what ECHO Barkery does and how they help find a pathway for people, … the fact that we have individuals who have a lot to give the world and a lot to provide the world … I think is what attracted us to want to be partners with ECHO Barkery. It just fits what both our missions and our visions are. …I'm really grateful to ECHO Barkery and the team for choosing us, and I look forward to what we're going to do together in the future.”
Recently, in a highly publicized incident, 4,000 beagles were rescued from a mass breeding facility. Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation brought 56 into their facility for care, including a young lady now named Echo. “Part of our outreach to the community … is getting them involved in our journey. What better way to do that than offer them a way that they could name one of the pups. … ECHO Barkery jumped on that opportunity and of course named their pup Echo.” In exchange for a small financial contribution, the Barkery became Echo’s “sponsor,” showcased on the foundation’s social media platforms throughout Echo’s journey to adoption.
Social media has proven crucial for the Barkery to build community connections, especially when face-to-face opportunities can be limited. As part of his role managing the Barkery’s social media, Warren has developed an Instagram ambassador program, teaming up with popular pet accounts who create posts about the Barkery’s treats.”We partnered with really small accounts in the beginning … and gained followers and recognition from that. From there, we're now partners with ambassadors that have 30,000 plus followers. Seeing that grow and that community on social media is amazing. People are so excited and happy to help a cause like this. … I don't think they're even looking at the biscuit. What they notice is what we do here, what ECHO does. And they post that, and they have their followers see that, and the mission just continues to grow.”
“We're not competing with Milk-Bone,” says Pete, who agrees that the Barkey’s main “product” is an ability to help people. “We're selling a story.”
Dawn believes individuals inspired to adopt rescued animals have a universal empathy that would draw them to support the Barkery as well. “If I have the choice to purchase something that is created, designed, and put together by the hands of the loving people at ECHO Barkery, versus walking into a pet store and buying something off the shelf, I'm going to choose ECHO Barkery because of what I feel is a result of making that purchase, which then gets donated to these pets that I love. That's just a win, right? That's just a score all the way around.”
The Barkery staff hopes that increased effort in both their in-person and online community presence will continue to bolster visibility and support, generating additional revenue streams, partners, and volunteers. Because the Barkery is a regulated facility, there are challenges to getting the community involved in its day-to-day work. Pete’s newest idea is to build a volunteer sales force, similar in model to cookie sales through scouts, youth groups, and sports teams.
Todd says in two to five years, there’s the possibility of more than one ECHO Barkery. “Right now, we're making the best dog biscuit on the market. … But prove the concept, build it out, and then we can expand it.”
Unanimously, the team agrees that the most effective way to support the Barkery is simply buying biscuits, especially through subscriptions. But, Warren says there are many ways to uplift their mission. Following on social media, visiting their team at events, or stopping into their Ashburn location to make a purchase are all welcome and encouraged. There is, however, one special request: “Bring your dog. They love that.”