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From the beginning, WhirliDogs has been about more than just opening a hot dog cafe and store in historic downtown Wilson.
Wesley Trump and Martha Wrenn are the retired educators who got the ball rolling back in 2017 for the idea of a business that would help train and employ Wilson adults with disabilities. Through community input, the concept for WhirliDogs evolved, but the idea is based around similar businesses like the Bitty and Beaus coffee shop in Wilmington.
The business and training center came under the Diversified Opportunities umbrella last spring, and that’s when the effort really started taking shape. Trump developed a curriculum to teach concepts such as health and safety procedures, cooking and service.
“The ‘power of possibility’ is our tagline, and we wanted to offer as many skill sets as possible,” Trump said. “Just because someone has a development disability or something doesn’t mean they have the same interests and skills as someone else.”
Once open in the next 12 to 18 months, WhirliDogs hopes to provide opportunities for up to 149 disabled adults a year with skills to work in a restaurant or other service industry while also learning tasks such as inventory and management.
“You can ask just about anyone if they know someone who is disabled, and they all do, but they also know the heartache that can come with loving someone with disabilities,” Trump said. “When you’re in high school, everybody is always talking about what they are doing after graduation, but there are limited opportunities for those with barriers. Our big goal and mission is to train folks, and when they finish, they’ll have on-the-job experience to put on their resumes.”
Purpose and possibilities
The WhirliDogs culinary class is the latest addition to Diversified Opportunities’ services. Executive Director Cindy Harrell said it was a natural fit with the nonprofit’s overarching mission: to provide vocational evaluation, training and job placement for individuals 16 and older with disabilities or disadvantaged circumstances so they can earn income and enhance their independence in the community.
“Diversified Opportunities’ mission and WhirliDogs’ mission are almost identical,” Harrell said.
Diversified Opportunities has roughly 100 clients at any given time. Harrell said the organization’s programs provide a gamut of services that help clients from age 16 to 87 with intellectual or physical disabilities learn everyday skills as well as train for various types of employment.
Since the WhirliDogs concept has become public knowledge, her staff has seen an uptick in interest from parents and community members wanting to know more about Diversified Opportunities.
“We’ve had people come in and begin services after hearing about WhirliDogs,” Harrell said. “In that respect, WhirliDogs has already fulfilled that mission and improved the quality of life for people in Wilson.”
Trump and Wrenn said they’ve been touched by all the parents who have been supportive of WhirliDogs, volunteering time and energy to make the business a reality.
“All parents want the same thing for their children: to be successful, happy and independent. And a job helps make that happen,” Wrenn said. “The parents that are involved in this are so happy and appreciative because they know this is going to open doors for their children, and they are willing to do a lot of work to make it happen.”
ORGANIZATION AND OBSTACLES
WhirliDogs organizers drummed up support from local officials for the project in recent months in hopes of getting a state grant, but when that bid fell through, they didn’t give up.
“We were disappointed, but we were not deterred,” Trump said. “We started looking at some other grant opportunities, and we learned you’ve got to really get your name out there because foundations want to know the community is supporting a project before they throw their money behind it.”
“We were nervous about that, but I think it was actually a blessing we didn’t get that grant because it forced us to put the whole WhirliDogs concept out there and the community support has been amazing,” Wrenn added.
The duo launched a social media campaign — including www.facebook.com/whirlidogs/ — and eventually came up with the idea of getting supporters to host fundraisers dubbed Parties with a Purpose. Susan Kellum, downtown marketing and communications coordinator, was among the attendees and expressed her support for WhirliDogs.
“During the seven years I’ve been with Wilson Downtown Development, we’ve had a lot of people come in and want to open a business. They all have passion and enthusiasm, but I’ve never seen anyone come in as new entrepreneurs who have worked so diligently to be prepared,” Kellum said at one recent party. “Wesley has worked with the Small Business Center at Wilson Community College and taken almost every class they have. She and Martha have reached out to countless organizations to explore partnership possibilities, crossed the state visiting businesses that offer training for adults with special needs and eaten at every hot dog joint along the way to get a feel for what will work on their menu.”
MONEY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS
The group is hoping to raise $250,000 to purchase equipment and outfit a downtown location.
“Downtowns ‘specialize’ in small businesses. With approximately 4,500 employees working downtown, we definitely have room for more restaurants,” Kellum said. “And, most importantly, downtowns serve as a community living room and, as such, are welcoming of everyone, including those with special needs.”
While they haven’t picked a specific building, Trump and Wrenn said they are investigating the logistics of several spots.
“We want to put a commercial kitchen in because beyond hot dogs, we’re hoping to do some catering and offer a commissary kitchen,” Trump said. “Right now we’re just looking to serve hot dogs during lunch and for ‘hot dog hump day’ dinners on Wednesdays, but when we’re not open for business, it’ll be a classroom used to cover curriculum for adults and provide some pre-employment seminars for high school students.”
Trump said while Diversified Opportunities has pledged some financial support, the hope is that WhirliDogs will become sustainable and self-sufficient just as the employees do through the training.
“If we had the funds today, we’d pick a location and work toward opening for business,” Harrell said.
WhirliDogs recently sold T-shirts to help raise funds and is continuing to take orders. T-shirts are available by calling Diversified Opportunities at 252-291-0378. Monetary and equipment donations are tax-deductible and can be directed to WhirliDogs through Diversified Opportunities at 1010 Herring Ave. E.
217 Brew Works also is having a free event from 4-6 p.m. on June 9 to rally support for WhirliDogs. The brewery will be releasing a small batch of WhirliDog Wheat, WhirliDog T-shirts will be on sale, and the Diversified Opportunities culinary class is making light hors d’oeuvres.