Keeping idle hands busy: Putty with a mission

Finding work is a source of frustration for many people with intellectual disabilities. After high school, opportunities and programs dwindle, and what to do all day becomes a major issue.

Narberth entrepreneur Aaron Muderick has made it his mission to be part of a solution. His products are assembled solely by people living with disabilities.

Aaron Muderick is passionate about putty. His line of “Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty” features elastic blobs in shimmering electric blue, glow-in-the-dark green, crystal-clear – there’s even a magnetic putty, which Muderick proudly shows off.

“The putty itself will attract toward the magnet and then if you put the two near each other, the putty over a minute or two will consume the magnet, almost like the blob, slowly crawling by itself over to the magnet,” said Muderick.

Muderick’s passion for putty grew out of being a fidgety software engineer, always looking for something to keep his hands busy. His company’s mission of occupying idle hands goes beyond creating cool desk toys. Muderick’s other goal is to provide employment opportunities for people living with intellectual disabilities.

In high school, he worked in a dog tag factory. He said the only employees who seemed to really care about the job was a group of people with intellectual disabilities. “So when I came to a point ten years later when I wanted to expand this business and get out of my basement, where I can only put putty in so many cans by myself with the help of my wife, I immediately thought of using a sheltered workshop,” said Muderick, “or a place where people with intellectual disabilities could do it.”

From a business perspective, it’s not the cheapest choice.

“As kind of crazy as it sounds to send something half way across the world to put it in a box and send it back, it costs less money,” said Muderick. “But I just didn’t want to go down this path.  Guys on the floor get to talk to me, and I get to talk to them, and we have a relationship.”

It’s probably not a big surprise that a man who makes putty for a living thinks fun should be part of work. Visiting one of the sheltered workshops he uses, at Don Guanella village in Springfield. Muderick enters carrying a huge chunk of putty, which weighs close to 25 pounds. Several workers come up to help Muderick stretch the putty, creating a stringy mess and lots of laughter.

This is one of several sheltered workshops in the region Muderick uses, these are work places with special accommodations and trained supervisors for people with intellectual disabilities. The workers here would not be able to compete in a regular work environment. They are residents at the adjacent Cardinal Krol Center says workshop supervisor Colleen Haley. “They come down at 9, they get right on the Crazy Aaron putty – and work all the way til 3:30, they get paid by the piece, so every can of putty they do they get paid for,” said Haley.

Workers sit around large square tables in the bright and airy warehouse space. Robert Lowrey is putting chunks of silver putty into a can, he says he enjoys the job, and enjoys getting a pay check every month.

It’s a very slow process, but since Muderick pays by the piece, it’s OK.  There are enough people to do the job.

Many sheltered workshops are struggling to bring in jobs, as manufacturing and assembly work have moved overseas. Muderick says he has seen places where people were just hanging around all day – until he brought his business there.

“The work solved the problem, the work reduced the behavior problems where people are getting into fights and arguments, because it’s like idle soldiers,” said Muderick, “if they are just milling around and they have nothing to do, all the personality problems, all the behavior problems come out.”

Muderick says he talks to other business owners about using the region’s sheltered workshops or employing people with intellectual disabilities. He says he gets letters from parents whose kids with disabilities enjoy the tactile nature of his products – and says it’s rewarding to see things go “full circle.”

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