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Small business stitches together friendship and independence for autistic adults

Founder Juan Garcia sits at his quilting work station at Zuggy Etc. workspace.
Founder and team member Juan Garcia sits at his quilting work station at Zuggy Etc. workspace in the OC Bridges Adult Day Program in San Juan Capistrano.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

At OC Bridges Adult Day Program in San Juan Capistrano Tuesday morning, a corner of the upstairs office space buzzed with activity. Sewing machines whirled and friends laughed and chatted. A small group of adults, each with some degree of autism, was hard at work sewing for Zuggy Etc.

“We are sewing aprons, and we are doing shirt orders,” said Zuggy Etc. staff member Chase Brown, as he folded T-shirts into a tidy stack.

Zuggy Etc. was founded by three autistic friends, Juan Garcia, Isaiah Paskowitz and Ali Akily, with help from their caretaker, Jennifer Tracy. The company began in 2019, selling T-shirts and coffee mugs featuring the work of different autistic artists each month. But when Tracy saw how enamored Garcia was with her friend Kay Lopper-Leddy’s sewing machine, she saw an opportunity to expand.

Zuggy Etc. workspace at the OC Bridges Adult Day Program in San Juan Capistrano.
Quilts are put together at the Zuggy Etc. workspace at the OC Bridges Adult Day Program in San Juan Capistrano.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“Juany is the genius behind the gig,” said Tracy.

Lopper-Leddy taught Garcia to sew, and he took to it quickly. He made an apron that Tracy then put online.

“A lady from Puerto Rico said she wanted to buy it,” recalls Tracy. “Then I got seven orders, and we only had one apron.”

The business grew from there. Besides aprons, Zuggy Etc. began sewing tote bags and surf board sleeves, most in a patchwork style that combines multiple squares of fabric.

“During the pandemic we were selling aprons,” said Garcia, sitting proudly at a sewing machine. “We sold them online.”

Tracy said it is important adults with autism like Garcia have the same opportunities as other adults.

“One of the first things he did when we started Zuggy, and he got his first paycheck, he went and got his Mom a Valentine’s present,” said Tracy.

Initially, Tracy ran Zuggy Etc. out of her home, but she knew the group needed a place for the business to make it feel more like a real job and prepare the group for a working environment.

Founder Jennifer Tracy, helps Jonathan Guinn fill an online order for Surfers Healing at the Zuggy Etc. work space.
Founder Jennifer Tracy helps Jonathan Guinn fill an online order for Surfers Healing at the Zuggy Etc. work space at the OC Bridges Adult Day Program in San Juan Capistrano.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Tracy connected with OC Bridges Adult Day Program, an organization that provides support, training and vocational opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities in San Juan Capistrano, and was able to arrange a trade.

“My niece and nephew attend here,” Tracy said. “So I went to the owner and said we really need an office. It is important to me that the group has a sense of community and friendship and going to a job. I want them to do whatever you and I do as people.”

She agreed to teach the students at the program to sew in exchange for a workspace. Now the group sews Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon at OC Bridges.

Founder Jennifer Tracy and staff member Chase Brown fold online T-shirt orders.
Founder Jennifer Tracy and staff member Chase Brown happily fold online T-shirt orders for Surfers Healing at the Zuggy Etc. workspace at the OC Bridges Adult Day Program in San Juan Capistrano.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

On Tuesday, the group was also folding and shipping shirts for local nonprofit surf camp, Surfers Healing, which was started by Israel and Danielle Paskowitz in honor of their son and Zuggy Etc. co-founder, Isaiah.

“It was Israel’s idea to have the kids fulfill the shirt orders,” said Tracy. “Because it gives them something to do.”

But most of the staff was busy sewing aprons, which are available on the Zuggy Etc. website and priced at $47.

“Every purchase you make employs young adults with special needs,” Tracy said.

Zuggy Etc. items can also be found at the San Juan Capistrano Farmers Market and local pop-up events. A pop-up at San Clemente’s Collective Energy Center planned for May 26 will offer T-shirts, sweatshirts, aprons, totes, accessory bags and surfboard sleeves for sale.

Jonathan Guinn shows the thank-you cards given to online order clients for Surfers Healing at Zuggy Etc. work space.
Jonathan Guinn shows the thank-you cards given to online order clients for Surfers Healing at the Zuggy Etc. workspace.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Tracy said she hopes the interest continues and the group can continue to sell its work.

“I am just proud of them,” said Tracy. “They are happy, and they have a sense of this is their office and this is their business. I could not be more proud of what they have accomplished.”

To support Zuggy Etc. or get more information on its next pop-up shop, visit zuggyetc.com.

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