Aprons become pandemic enterprise for young men with autism – Orange County Register

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.

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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.

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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.

“Thank you.”

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.”

Pandemic pastime

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.”


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