Nineteen-year-old William Wepking has had a busy year. After graduating from Naperville North High School, he’s been continuing his education with daily Zoom classes while balancing a part-time job.
He’s proud to be supporting the new nonprofit for which he works, but the real excitement came when he received his first paycheck. When you have Down syndrome, getting the opportunity to have real employment is a huge deal.
William and his friend, Peter Sotir, work for Earn with a Purpose, a new Naperville-based organization founded by Sotir’s parents, Mark and Dr. Migdalia Sotir, and their close friends, Russ and Laura Karlins.
William is enrolled in Naperville School District 203′s Connections program for young people with special needs but this is his first paid job.
“He is really excited to have a job, he’s very proud,” his mother, Kiki Wepking, said. “He says he feels really privileged that they chose him. He’s very personable and loves interacting with people.”
Earn with a Purpose has partnered with Gold Eagle, a Chicago-based manufacturing company, to provide employment for people with diverse developmental disabilities. Employees sell, pack and deliver hand sanitizer and cleaning products.
William’s job is to give personal presentations to customers over the internet, explaining the products available and guiding them through the ordering process.
“It would be quite a struggle for William without this job right now,” his mother said. “It’s quite disappointing because there are so many of these kids with diverse disabilities who have the ability to do something. We just see our son William as William because we are all different.”
After their son was born, the Wepkings’ took advantage of early intervention services, teaching him sign language to help with his communication skills.
“Someone once asked if I was disappointed he had disabilities, but I replied no one knows what their child will be like,” she said. “I am super thankful for this opportunity because it is hard. The world is changing ... hopefully people will start to see abilities and not disabilities in the future.”
The Wepkings help William by driving him to deliveries.
“When he makes deliveries, he wears a mask and leaves the products on the doorstep,” Kiki Wepking said. “The whole family gets involved but that’s how it’s always been, it’s not anything new. It helps to make him feel more successful. When he opened his first paycheck it was exactly the same reaction as anybody, that’s what people have to understand.”
Wepking said she would recommend Earn with a Purpose to any parent of a young adult with diverse developmental challenges.
“This is really a great opportunity to give them a real sense of pride and purpose,” she said.
Dr. Migdalia Sotir, a psychiatrist, said launching the business that helps people like William and her 17-year-old son, Peter, is easier for someone who can empathize with families are going through the same experiences.
“I had to devote myself to caring for (Peter) because he was struggling,” Sotir said. “Now I see parents of other autistic children to support them. It has been very humbling to learn firsthand how to help someone. As a family we have learned to be flexible and integrate Peter’s needs in a way that has enriched everyone.”
With his family’s help, Peter has overcome many challenges. For example, when he was a young child, doctors didn’t know if he would walk, she said. He went on to be part of his school’s running team.
“Naperville North has been wonderful in including him,” she said. “He’s also volunteered at Loaves and Fishes, the Naperville Public Library and the YMCA.”
Obtaining paid employment is a far greater challenge for those with developmental disabilities so finding businesses willing to partner with them is not easy.
“Children of Peter’s age are usually unemployed with nothing to do and nothing to look forward to,” Sotir said. “The pandemic has been hard on him. He has medical issues, and we didn’t want him to get infected.”
Like William, Peter was delighted to receive his first paycheck.
“It’s been great seeing his growing sense of excitement through his day,” Sotir said. “What we want now is more repeat customers and more business partners we can sell products for. We are open to any products that can be utilized on an ongoing basis.”
Peter’s older brothers, David and Michael, are directors of Earn with a Purpose.
“They are Peter’s strongest supporters. They love their brother and want to see him succeed,” Sotir said.
Co-founder Russ Karlins said he is hoping to expand the business to other suburbs.
“When we hire people, they’re not just an employee, they’re supported by their whole family,” he said.
Karlins also has the experience of knowing what it’s like to have a family member with diverse disabilities. His wife’s brother, Scott, has cerebral palsy. The Karlins are board members of Marklund, the nonprofit that runs the residential home in Geneva where Scott lives and their son, Matt Karlins, is an Earn with a Purpose director.
“It’s been a great learning experience for him,” Russ Karlins said.
Despite the pandemic, the business is doing better than he imagined when they launched in July, he said.
“Selling high-quality hand sanitizer that is safe and made in Chicago has definitely helped,” Karlins said.
Earn with a Purpose is looking to partner with more businesses and find repeat customers in order to provide more jobs for the developmentally disabled. For more information visit www.earnwithapurpose.org.
Hilary Decent is a freelance journalist who moved to Naperville from England in 2007.