Ben Huwe has been in and out of hospitals much of his life, and had his first eye surgery at just nine-months old.
“He has optic atrophy,” said his mom, Sherri Huwe. “His nerve that goes back to the base of his brain is scarred and damaged, and it’s barely attached. It’s like going through a fuzzy cable system.”
Despite being labeled legally blind, Ben Huwe developed a passion for drawing, and Sherri Huwe said a Dayton School District paraeducator noticed Ben’s artistic skills after he’d been caught acting up in class.
“That para took his spelling words and they started drawing all these fun little things—usually something to do with his sisters. So if the spelling word was ‘mud,’ he’d draw them in the mud. She’s the one who brought out the love of drawing in him,” said Huwe’s mom. “They were the best pair, and from there it took off.”
The para helped guide then 10-year-old Ben, who suffers from intellectual disabilities, anxiety, OCD and other health aliments. As he transitioned into a teenager, Ben decided to parlay his love of art into his senior project that was required for graduation.
He created gift cards and put together bags for patients at Providence St. Mary Medical Center and Dayton General Hospital.
“I like making people feel good,” said Ben Huwe, who wanted to continue his card making venture after graduation. “I like my job. I like drawing people.”
In order to keep Huwe doing what he loved, the Hendricksons, former owners of Elk Drug in Dayton, offered him a desk at their local pharmacy, Sherri Huwe said.
“So starting in high school he’s had a desk there. Now he’s 28,” she explained.
Eventually, the Hendricksons retired, but Elk Drug’s new owners, Sean and Andi Thurston, continued to offer Huwe a place to create his artwork after the transition.
For several years, Ben Huwe Cards and Designs had the support of a job coach, which his mother said was funded through Columbia County after he turned 21.
“But that’s when the Developmental of Vocation Rehabilitation (DVR) looked at his business and said, ‘That’s not viable,’” she explained.
Huwe lost his funding for a job coach—an individual who specializes in assisting individuals with disabilities to learn and accurately carry out job duties—and for two years, his family struggled to help him get his support system back. With the future of Ben Huwe Cards and Designs in jeopardy, the community and caregivers through Valley Residential Services rallied around him to keep taking him to his job.
“Without that support, he wouldn’t have stayed in his routine, which is critical to his success,”Sherri Huwe said.
Huwe’s case traveled through the chain of command and eventually an administrative hearing was set. Ben was able to get a lawyer through Northwest Justice Project where Tyler Grabber helped the family settle the case.
“Part of the negotiation with the state was that a business plan had to be made,” Sherri Huwe said.
In December 2015, she reached out to Brad McMasters, economic development director with the Port of Columbia.
“Sherri contacted me directly because she knows my work is to help businesses in our county. She shared the scenario and her frustrations. She’s been a strong advocate for her son and his work with his design company,” McMasters said.
McMasters gave her some resources for writing a business plan then made some personal connections with individuals and organizations he thought could help her.
“Then I put her directly in touch with SCORE because I knew they would have resources and individuals that could actually sit down with her and help her write a business plan,” he said.
The Mid-Columbia Tri-Cities Service Corp of Retired Executives stepped in and by March 2016, Sherri Huwe had a business plan in place.
“That was the key to opening the door,” said Sherri Huwe, who worked with SCORE’s Donna Rassat. “They had lots of great ideas and helped me get a business plan ready.”
This spring, Ben Huwe’s funding was restored and a job coach was provided via Goodwill. Funding is granted under a waiver through the Developmental Disabilities Administration and Columbia County, which oversee the details of the program.
“His job coach is coaching him to draw puppies and he’s starting to get back into the mode of being creative,” Sheri Huwe said, adding that Ben receives 12 hours a month in job coach support.
And as long as Ben Huwe can continue to show his design business is viable, his mom said his job coach is here to stay.
“Last year he sold $500 in cards and baskets just at Easter time—and that was just mom promoting it on Facebook,” said Sherri Huwe, one of several family members stepping up to help.
Ben’s sister is a graphic artist, and his brother works at a sign company out of Portland. But family is only one element of support, Sherri Huwe said, adding that the community and job coaches are instrumental to his success.
“I love the job coaches,” she said. They’re exactly what he needs to help push him outside the box. They’re like, ‘Can we make T-shirts with these designs?’”
McMasters hopes Huwe’s story inspires other struggling business owners to reach out to the Port of Columbia—or their local port—if they need help with business plans, funding, or anything in between.
“We manage a contract with the state Department of Commerce to offer economic development resources. We do business recruitment, business retention, business expansion and a lot of community and capacity building—which to me is also what this is about—making community a very open and safe place to do business,” McMasters said. “Obviously his business is very unique, but this is what we do. In a small town, a lot of it is about retention, and making sure we have the services in our community.”
Ben Huwe Cards and Designs products can be purchased at Elk Drug in Dayton, located at 167 E. Main Street. He also has a Facebook page, facebook.com/ben.huwe.
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