Joel Wegener of Ohio decided to buy an ice cream truck to provide a career path for his special needs children as a way to give back to the community and support people with Down syndrome. What is the most effective way to bring people and communities together? Yes, food, but ice cream? Better yet! Joel, 61, and his wife Freida have ten children, two of whom, Mary Kate and Josh, were born with Down syndrome.
People born with Down syndrome have an extra chromosome, which causes a variety of physical and developmental issues. Down syndrome is a chronic disease that cannot be cured. Nonetheless, doctors are learning more about the condition and have assisted countless families and communities in supporting loved ones with Down syndrome. Because the effects vary from person to person, people with Down syndrome have varying mental abilities ranging from mild to moderate in terms of thinking, reasoning, and understanding.
While they may learn later than others, people with Down syndrome can learn new skills throughout their lives. Some people with Don syndrome may require lifelong care, but a compassionate and inclusive community can help them care for themselves and live full and meaningful lives. There have been significant advances in providing opportunities for people with mental disabilities, including those with Down syndrome. Joel, a retired science teacher, is still concerned that his children will have difficulty finding work in the future.
So, after doing some research online, he purchased an ice cream truck for $6,000 from another special needs family in Indiana, and after some repairs, he set out to sell ice cream with his two children. What’s the point of an ice cream truck? “The reason the ice cream truck is so ideal is that it has allowed them both to develop their interactive and social skills in a comfortable environment,” he explained.
After some repairs and rebranding, the Wegeners opened their doors to the public in April 2021, and it quickly became a hit with the residents of their hometown, appropriately named Loveland. “My wife came up with the brilliant idea of naming it Special Neat Treats, which is a play on words for special needs.” I never expected this to happen when we bought the ice cream truck in January.
“The attention we’ve gotten has been incredible, and we hope that we can inspire other families with special needs children to find new and inventive ways to support their children,” Joel said. The company has certainly outperformed expectations. Thousands of desserts have been sold, and there are plans to expand the fleet of ice cream trucks. It’s also been a fantastic opportunity to connect with other people who have Down syndrome.
“Almost every time I go out,” Joel explained, “I find a family with special needs or with some connection.” It’s been an incredible journey.” Special Neat Treats’ success contributes to efforts to increase opportunities and secure employment for people with Down syndrome. “Josh is in his senior year at school, so he isn’t around as much, but Mary is nearly 22 and thus no longer eligible for public education,” Joel explained.
We were concerned about what she’d be able to do once she reached this age, but the ice cream truck has put our minds at ease.” “Mary has always wanted to work with me,” he continued, “but there hasn’t been a suitable job opportunity for her up until now.” When teachers and others asked her, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” she said she wanted to work with Papa.”
Joel and his wife are ecstatic about their children’s success with the Special Neat Treats truck. “We were not afraid of having special needs children or the challenges that came with it,” Frieda said. And the ice cream truck is more than just a business; it is also a place where children can learn new skills. People with Down syndrome may struggle with tasks such as smiling and asking questions, according to Joel, and these are skills that his children must practice at work.
Furthermore, Joel is teaching his children how to manage money and interact with customers. Josh and Mary are overwhelmed by their father’s and the rest of the family’s love and support. “Our dad is the best dad ever, and we love selling ice cream with him,” they said. We had a great time this summer and hope to sell ice cream again in the future.” Joel sees Special Neat Treats as more than just an ice cream shop.
He hopes to expand the business and help even more people with Down syndrome. “As a parent, you have desires,” he explained. I doubt either of them will ever be completely self-sufficient. But we hope to steer them in that direction, and I hope they can continue to assist me in selling ice cream for a long time.” Joel, Mary Kate, and Josh hope that after running the business together and seeing the interest it has generated in the community,
Special Neat Treats will help raise awareness about the hiring potential of people with Down syndrome and varying physical and mental abilities. “No matter what your abilities are, there’s something you can do to spread joy and interact with other people,” Joel emphasized. Watch the video below to learn more about this incredible story: