The sewing happens in the kitchen. That seems only fitting given how aprons are the finished product.
What might seem surprising, though, is who is sitting at the sewing machines.
A group of seven young men, ages 15 to 30.
And all of them have autism, with varying degrees of attentiveness and dexterity to apply to the apron-making enterprise taking place at the San Clemente home of Jennifer Tracy, a caregiver to people with special needs.
Their labor earns them a “paycheck” every week and makes their customers pretty darn happy with the colorful quality of what they sell through their website at zuggyetc.com. The apron makers all live in south Orange County: Paul Baker, 30, and Noah Graham, 15, of San Clemente; Juan Garcia Lagunas, 22, and Isaiah Paskowitz, 30, in San Juan Capistrano; Jonathan Guinn, 29, of Mission Viejo; and Ali Akily, 24, of Aliso Viejo.
The aprons are all a patchwork design, with a solid backing added by Tracy and her longtime friend Kay Lopper-Leddy, a partner in the sewing enterprise who also works with special needs adults.
So far, they’ve sold 161 aprons, at $47 each.
Make people smile
Zuggy Etc. began in April 2019 as a project for Garcia Lagunas, Paskowitz and Akily to sell T-shirts and coffee mugs featuring their artwork. The apron sideline developed under the coronavirus lockdown, an antidote to idle time and frustration when it wasn’t possible to physically attend school or programs at Regional Center of Orange County, which provides services to people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
The sewing machines whirred away one day this past week as five members of the Zuggy enterprise worked on aprons.
The production line began at a small wooden kitchen table where Garcia Lagunas sat stitching away on a Singer sewing machine, his back to the kitchen sink and Guinn at his left, elbow handing him squares of fabric in different hues. It continued down an 8-foot-long folding table with Baker on one side at a Brother machine and Paskowitz across from him writing thank you notes. Stacks of fabric squares covered the end of the table that butted up against an easy chair draped with the apron linings.
Bowls holding spools of thread and a magnet with a cluster of straight pins also sat on the work table.
Paskowitz, who has the best handwriting, finished two notes on plain white paper that read in block letters, with a minor misspelling, “Thank you for supporting zuggetc” and under the word “Love” included their names. He drew a smiley face, too. Then, having come from school not long before, announced he needed a break and went into another room. The others continued working quietly as a Bob Marley song list played on Tracy’s TV.
Every now and then, Garcia would call out to Guinn for the color of fabric he wanted.
“I see it in my head,” he said of how he creates the apron’s pattern.
“The purple,” he said to Guinn, who handed him a square.
“And that blue.”
Guinn responded again.
“What do you say?” Tracy reminded Garcia Lagunas.
Baker selected his own squares from stacks of aqua-toned fabric similar to the color of his T-shirt. When this all started, he had been hesitant to try his hand at apron making, afraid he wouldn’t be any good at it. Turns out, “he’s, like, amazing,” Tracy said.
Baker said he enjoys working with the colors. But there’s something else: “I’ve been doing this to make people smile.”
The pandemic disrupted their lives, just as it has everyone else’s. But it’s been harder for them to understand.
Garcia, who lives with his parents and two brothers, had just graduated from Capistrano Unified’s adult transition program for students with special needs and was ready to start on job development at the Regional Center when COVID-19 halted everything in mid-March.
The Regional Center serves about 6,000 special needs adults, helping those who want employment with such preparations as interview skills and resumes, job search, college programs and career paths, and connections to such organizations as Goodwill of Orange County and Project Independence, said Arturo Cazares, associate director of employment.
Or, if someone has an idea for a business, there is support available for that, Cazares added.
“All services are tailored to their interests.”
Those services, he said, are lifelong or “however long they might want them.”
While the pandemic halted in-person services, the center, like everyone else, pivoted to using Zoom, telephone counseling and other platforms. But those platforms don’t work for everyone.
Garcia Lagunas was in the middle of figuring out his next steps with his service coordinator, Rosaura Silva, and his father, who was holding down two jobs, as a cook in a hotel kitchen and a caterer. Garcia Lagunas is really good with numbers, can communicate his needs and dislikes, and is sociable and well-liked. But he doesn’t always understand the reasons things happen the way they do or why they can’t happen faster, Silva said.
He was having a hard time dealing with the restrictions of the pandemic. Then, Tracy got inspired by a photo of a friend’s mom in an apron and the close attention Garcia Lagunas paid to Lopper-Leddy as she sewed face masks one day as they paid a visit.
Making aprons, Silva said, has given Garcia Lagunas confidence and encouragement.
“This process has helped him grow as a person. It gets him up and going because he knows he has orders to fill.”
Salvador Garcia sees a difference in his son, who made him a Day of the Dead-themed apron.
“Before, I never could see how he could do this,” his father said. “I’ve seen it is a good thing for him. He’s learning that he can do things for himself.”
Juan Garcia Lagunas still wants to get a job, Silva said, and she is sure that will happen for him. For Garcia Lagunas and the others to be involved in an at-home, mini-business like Zuggy Etc. is a rare occurrence among the people she works with.
“They have to have the right chemistry.”
Tracy, 55, is an aunt to two of the guys in the group and has known others since their childhoods. She has looked out for people with special needs ever since she became a “Best Buddy” in a school program back in fourth grade.
Tracy’s mother and an elderly friend cut all the squares ahead of time, giving them something to do while they’ve been stuck at home. People in the community have donated the fabric. Then it takes the sewing crew about two hours to finish an apron.
Tracy keeps a sheet on a clipboard so they can record their work hours and when they take breaks, giving them the feel of being at a place of employment – something to help prepare those of them who may end up with jobs someday.
Somebody is sewing nearly every day, Tracy said. If not at her house, then at the nearby home of Lopper-Leddy.
Zuggy got a huge boost in late October after a purchaser in Mexico with a large social media following raved about her aprons and Zuggy Etc. Then came more attention from a TV news piece.
Said Tracy: “We got completely slammed.”
Go to rcocdd.com/home/employment/ to find out about Regional Center of Orange County’s employment services for adults with special needs.