Wheelchair-bound South Philly resident starts air freshening business

Through the work of IDEATE, George Shands is working against the odds, transforming into a business entrepreneur.

South Philly resident George Shands, a wheelchair user, operates a robot arm alongside resource coordinator Lindsey Wavrek. His recent work with the Frankford-based IDEATE, a subdivision of the national Resources for Human Development corporation, has led to the fruition of his first business, which offers an assortment of air fresheners and incense. (GRACE MAIORANO/South Philly Review)

Delicately tapping a game controller, South Philly resident George Shands maneuvered a compact white robot arm, guiding the gadget as it cut strips of paper labels.

For Shands, simply trimming these logos, which splendidly spell “Fresh Scents by G Fresh,” was once a challenge, as the blooming salesman is wheelchair-bound with fine motor impairment.

But, Shands’ recent work with the Frankford-based IDEATE, a subdivision of the national Resources for Human Development corporation, has led to the fruition of his first business, which offers an assortment of air fresheners and incense through online sales and pop-up vending at local fairs, festivals and other community events.

G Fresh Emporium, which kicked off this past June, significantly increased the South Philly resident’s income. Previously, Shands was in a sheltered workshop where he earned less than the federal minimum wage, which is legal under the Fair Labor Standard Act. After opting out of this system and into IDEATE’S community-based competitive employment, he now earns roughly equal to or more than minimum wage.

“Making much more money, it felt good,” he said. “Paying myself is good… I am my own boss. It feels great. It just feels great. It’s something I like to do. This was like a dream come true to me.”

Shands’ whopping raise is a testimony of the technology-driven IDEATE, an employment first program founded in 2014 that’s “committed to the respect for human rights and the dignity of every individual,” by assisting, advancing and advocating job opportunities for those living with various disabilities.

“The whole point of it is — we want individuals who identify as disabled to have equal access to rights, responsibilities and remuneration as non-disabled people,” said program director Kaelynne Koval. “And, (Shands is) doing it.”

Shands, who started with IDEATE in 2016 after advocating himself out of institutional care and into community-based employment, is one of the first individuals fostering skills in the program’s recently-established business incubator, which offers a scope of business service support, from composing emails to controlling an iPad.

While making sense of his strengths, Shands tried his hands at a few jobs, including answering phone calls and working for Macy’s. But both labors presented hindrances for Shands, as picking up phones was physically grueling on his dexterity and relying on SEPTA’s inconsistent paratransit system made getting to work on time nearly impossible.

So, his support team reconsidered Shands’ possibilities. Using IDEATE’s evidence-based system, they perceived his personable and pleasant personality aligned with the skills of a salesman.

“He’s very easy to talk to. He’s very personable,” resource coordinator Lindsey Wavrek said, as she guided Shands through label cutting. “When I first met you,” she said turning to him, “it was like we had already been friends. You were already just very comfortable with people. You aren’t afraid to reach out and say ‘hey, how’s it going?’”

Wavrek says these characteristics also make Shands an impressive disc jockey, as “G Fresh” was originally his stage name as an amateur local DJ.

The title inadvertently spurred the air freshening emporium.

Considering the kinks of the business, Shands’ team wondered how technology, a linchpin of IDEATE, would make his sales a reality, including completing various manual tasks, such as cutting and stapling labels.

In March, through an online crowdsourcing fundraiser, IDEATE raised $1,400 to purchase a Dobot robotic arm, which put the business into action, as in June, G Fresh Emporium officially launched.

“Technology levels the playing field,” Koval said. “It lets a person get a job they might not get… If you understand what a person needs to do the job, you can find a device or you can find a solution to help them do it.”

“But, solutions have become much easier and off-the-shelf accessible,” added David Markowitz, technology director of IDEATE.

Throughout IDEATE’s “sales season,” which runs primarily through the spring and summer, “G Fresh” vended throughout more than 70 places in the community, including churches, fairs and festivals, selling close to 200 air fresheners and dozens of incense packs.

A major milestone, in September, Shands broke even, as he earned back as much money as he put forward to start the business. Standing out from others in the incubator, he even established a savings, investing 92 cents on every dollar back into G Fresh Emporium.

“He runs a business with a small surplus, and he’s really in control of what he’s doing,” Koval said. “This is independence of a wildly different kind for him.”

Shands’ impressive sales system is also making a name outside of the IDEATE office.

Within the past month, Shands was accepted as one of the newest members of the Urban League Entrepreneurship Center. Dedicated to the betterment of African Americans, the center “provides technical assistance, strategic planning and links to resources to help small businesses grow their financial and human capital.”

While currently moving party peach and mighty-fine pine scents, Shands is introducing sassy cinnamon into his collection, and even hopes to make and sell African soaps and oils.

“We’re strength-based. So, everybody that’s here, without exception, when they were referred, they were told ‘You’ll never work.’ And George was a person that was told, you’ll really never work,” Koval said.

While G Fresh Emporium, has transformed Shands into an accredited salesman, it has simultaneously fostered the South Philly resident into an advocate for individuals living with physical and intellectual disabilities, transforming the self-esteem he’s gained into counseling for others.

Since starting the business, he’s written letters to SEPTA regarding the paratransit system, hoping for the organization to acquire more consistent and reliable transportation options for himself and others.

For those individuals seeking to start their own business ventures with IDEATE, Shands says he’ll lend a helping hand.

“I will support them. I will show them what to do, and I’ll teach them,” he said. “Then, we go from there.”

To check out G Fresh Emporium, www.facebook.com/gfreshemporium/.

Follow Grace on Twitter at @GraceMaiorano