Jen Wood’s Voyager class at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School has embarked on a business venture that’s producing a new local product: Purple Paws dog treats. Their recipe for success includes a great logo for packaging, and a website where you can learn all about the class, the product, and how to order the treats — or maybe even purchase a hoodie or other merch with their bright purple logo (bit.ly/PurplePawTreat).
When The Times visited the Voyager classroom last week, three students ages 18 to 21 were busy measuring, mixing, baking, labeling, filling bags, and tallying up sales — all skills they can take out into the community’s workforce once they turn 22 and leave the high school’s special education program.
Grace Carroll practically has the recipe memorized: She measured the flour, cracked the eggs, added peanut butter and the rest of the ingredients, and began mixing. Each batch is baked in the classroom’s oven with education support professionals Hallie Britt and Kendall Robinson helping Woods oversee the process. Justin Corl was doing everything from stamping the labels with an expiration date to totaling sales to decorating the brown bags the treats are delivered in, while Andres Sanchez-Roa was intent on filling each plastic bag with round dog treats stamped with a little paw in the center.
We asked where the idea of making dog treats to sell came from. Before COVID struck, the class had been doing some work at the Edgartown School, Woods said, and staff there brought up the idea.
“We were working at the Edgartown School, and one of the teachers there mentioned doing dog treats, so we Googled recipes, and then we made a recipe we got from Jeff Caruthers, one of the special ed teachers,” Woods explained. “He makes these for his dog. We’ve had to double the batch.”
“Right now we’re self-sustaining,” Woods explains. “We are having conversations with a vision group and with the Island Autism Group about bringing Purple Paws out into the community.”
Currently Voyager students are learning about careers at Felix Neck, Brickman’s, The Trustees of Reservations, and Island Grown Initiative’s Thimble Farm. Before COVID-19, they also went into libraries and other sites. “We want to get them invested in the Island community, and find out what hobbies and careers they might like,” Woods said. “We try anything that might spark their interest. Andres lights up when he sees a dog, so we’ve been doing some dog walking. It’s been easy to set up the places; everyone we’ve reached out to has been happy to work with us.”
The Voyagers classroom is the hub of Purple Paws production these days, and students work on some aspect of the business each day, Woods said. Along with baking the treats, there are labels to make, deliveries to complete, orders to take, and everything else that comes with a new business. They even count the money collected from Purple Paws, and fill out deposit forms with Suzanne Cioffi from the finance department at MVRHS.
Woods stressed that breaking down the tasks into individual steps has helped the students with independence, and has built their confidence. “Then they can bring these skills into something else in their life,” she said.
The bags of about a dozen treats go for $3, and are already a popular item around the high school. We watched as Justin delivered a bag to Spanish teacher Erin Slossberg and her rescue pup Banjo, who seemed very happy to accept the delivery.
Like many Islanders, a lot of the school staff have gotten COVID puppies, so there is definitely a market for Purple Paws. For now, the Voyagers make deliveries to each Island school, and buyers can pick up the dog treats at the high school as well.
Besides the great benefits of the skills the students are mastering, parents are pleased that the business might lead to a real career for their adult children.
Chris Corl, Justin’s dad, said he thinks the project is making a huge impact. “These opportunities are life-changing,” he said. “Ultimately the whole purpose is seeing what Justin’s level of independence will be. This program is more impactful than I think Jen Woods even sees and understands.”
Justin, who is 21 now, was nonverbal up until he was 10 years old. Now he practices social skills as he interacts with customers. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also a dog lover. His dad said they’re also trying to build a dog-walking business, with proceeds benefiting the Island Autism Group. Chris says that he’s very much encouraged by the supportive Island community, as well as the committed staff at the high school.
“Purple Paws needs to be a bridge into the next stage in his life,” Chris said about Justin’s work. “All these things they do in the Voyager class they need to be able to continue once he’s 22. It can’t just stop because he’s no longer a student. Look how beautifully he’s doing. There’s a sense of purpose that comes from doing this.”
To find out more about Purple Paws or to order some dog treats, visit bit.ly/PurplePawTreat. To find out more about the Voyager program, email Jen Woods at email@example.com. To find out more about the Island Autism Group, visit islandautism.org.