Aspire to Inspire
A group of artisans breaks down perceived barriers to create one-of-a-kind accessories — and opportunity. By Zachary McKenzie
Custom beaded necklaces, engraved leather keychains and gifts galore! These items weren’t created by high-end jewelers or lifelong craftsmen, but by the talented artisans at Aspire Accessories, a program of local nonprofit Social Motion Skills that trains and enables individuals with autism and other special needs to learn transferable job skills and earn a living wage. In just a few years, Aspire has grown from a two-person team with a single product to a full-blown biz launching new initiatives and employing more artisans than ever.
For founder Denise Hazen, the mission of Aspire is a personal one. After her son Nick was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at the age of two, she was told by the doctor everything Nick would never be able to do: drive a car, go to college, get a job. Denise set out to prove him wrong. After an apprenticeship, hours of stitching, and a portfolio of one item — a riveted, double-wrap, hand-stamped leather bracelet — Nick and Denise launched Aspire in 2011. Within just a few months, Denise, with her mama-bear mentality and blonde hair falling just past her shoulders, utilized social media to recruit more workers.
Artisans like Matt Mantor, 24, find purpose in the work they do at Aspire’s Spring Branch workshop, which doubles as a storefront. (The products — now including bags, earrings, wine tumblers and more — can also be purchased at local boutiques including Renovate, Pinto Ranch, Branché, Luxington and Rebecca Langford.) His favorite part of the gig is that he gets to do the “fun but challenging” work — which includes creating, packaging, marketing and selling the products — alongside his friends. Putting not only his craftsmanship but also his growing social skills to work, the tall, blonde creator with an infectious laugh enjoys going to craft fairs and manning the check-out stations, because he gets to “work with the iPad and talk to the customers.”
This fall, Aspire seeks to expand its reach into peoples’ homes with Aspire Create. “It’s Aspire in a box,” explains Denise. “There will be raw materials and instructions for how to make Aspire products that an individual can then go on to sell.” Hazen says this will help expand the movement of purchasing with purpose, while creating even more skill-training opportunities for her artisans — including Nick, now a tall, dark-haired 23-year-old.
“I wanted him to have a sense of purpose, but what he got was a community.”
AT TOP: Nick Hazen stitches a faux-fur stole