Older students with disabilities in the Hopkinton Public Schools are finding their niche in the community by participating in an innovative business selling T-shirts and other items through the district’s 18-22 program.
The Niche Hop Shop store grew out of the 18-22 program, according to Katie Hibbert, a special education teacher. The 18-22 program, located at what is known as the “white house” in front of the middle school, exists to help students with disabilities gain a variety of job and life skills.
“We teach everything that you would need to know as you are becoming an adult and becoming more independent in the community,” Hibbert explained. “In addition to exploring vocational opportunities, the students go shopping and learn how to cook and to dress professionally for work.”
Previously held at the high school, the 18-22 program has existed in this location for three years, thanks to support from Superintendent Carol Cavanaugh and the School Committee, according to Hibbert.
Director of Student Services Karen Zaleski said an 18-22 committee was formed after the program moved locations. Comprised of parents, educators and a student representative, the committee formulated the idea of starting a business.
“We wanted to decide what was the best way to advance the skills of the students so that they can have a nice opportunity to connect with the community as they work on their post-secondary goals and vocational opportunities,” Zaleski said. “The parents on our committee have great backgrounds on the ins and outs of business.”
One member she recognized is Jennifer Halliday, who created two T-shirt designs for suicide prevention month this past September with her son, Dee.
Even the program’s name was a collaborative effort.
“We were trying as a committee to come up with a name for the business and were working with the students on it,” Zaleski explained. “When we thought about it, we decided that it was really about helping students find their niche, if you will. They are finding out how they were going to connect beyond the four walls of the white house and find their niche and their skill sets to serve the broader community.”
At the Niche Hop Shop, students trace designs on T-shirts to give each one an individual flair. They also unpack the delivery boxes, fold the T-shirts on a folding board, and prepare the orders for pickup. Students designed the shop logo, which appears on every product.
“It’s that imperfect perfection that makes our T-shirts so beautiful,” Hibbert said.
“We are a business that sells T-shirts, beanies and other stuff,” said Max McNamara, the student representative. “We put their names on the bags, package up their items, and give the bag to the customer when they come to pick it up. When I see the customers, it makes me feel proud to give them the things that they ordered. My favorite part is telling people about our items.”
Hibbert said the students “play a huge role” in the success of the Niche Hop Shop. One of the greatest lessons students learn is the skill of customer interaction.
“Vocational exploration is a big part of our program,” she said. “We were able to learn how to make the T-shirts and about the silk-screening process through Jen Halliday. After that we also did a tour of a silk-screening business that operates on a large scale. Then we were able to go out into the community and see what a bigger business would look like.”
They unpackage the boxes when the T-shirts come in, fold them up using folding boards and monitor the business. The School Committee recently approved the 18-22 program having a credit card account to facilitate item ordering.
“There’s a lot that goes into the business,” Hibbert said.” It’s giving the students so many skills that they can transfer into other positions out in the greater Hopkinton community that they can transfer into real-world opportunities, whether it’s customer services or being involved in the packaging.”
Before the holiday season, beanies and T-shirts promoting kindness and Hopkinton quickly sold out. The students now are working on ideas for their spring line of items. Some students went to the high school to market their products.
School principals helped by advertising the Niche Hop Shop in their newsletters. The 18-22 students currently are developing a social media platform to market their goods and have learned to use QR codes.
“Some of the students even went to local businesses to talk to them and ask if they could put up flyers,” added Hibbert.
At the white house, a mannequin wearing one of the T-shirts appears in the front window greeting those who pass.
“Our goal is to grow the business and to provide as many opportunities as possible,” Zaleski said.
“It’s exciting, and the students are so proud of their work,” Hibbert added. “The great part is that the students are finding different aspects of the business that they enjoy. We are so very proud of the work our students have put into creating our incredible new business.”
To view items from the Niche Hop Shop, go to www.myschoolbucks.com/ver2/stores/catalog/getlistproducts?clientKey=ZZJJYFMED20T6LV&requestAction=ViewAll.