My Name is Joe Steffy, I am 30 years old and I own Poppin Joe’s Kettle Korn. As October is Down syndrome Awareness Month, I wanted to share my story to inspire others to pursue their dreams. My story is a tribute to my parents’ determination and the support they have given to ensure my quality of life. I have been able to share my success story across the country at conferences, seminars, and to parent and self-advocacy groups.  In honor of Down syndrome Awareness Month and National Disability Employment Month, I’d like to share it with you!

I was born with Down syndrome and later diagnosed with Autism. When I was in school, my teachers said I had an IQ of 32 with profound intellectual disabilities. The reports said that my receptive and expressive language was at a 3-year-old level, and that I had minimal basic academic skills.

As I grew, my parents saw that I liked to do things independently, I loved being active with other people and spending time with family and friends. They recognized that I had a very good memory for detail, and could follow through with activities that are part of a regular routine. I was blessed with many community opportunities and became a very strong swimmer. This led to the opportunity of helping at the community pool. I also enjoyed horseback riding at a local stable and began to volunteer there to help with the horses.

In high school, my team started to plan for my transition into adulthood. The team had very low expectations. They said I would never hold a job, that I had no attention span, could not focus, and would need to live in a group home. My parents disagreed. They knew I was capable of working and that I learned by watching. They also knew I would do exactly what I saw done, so teaching me the right way to do things would be important. I am happiest when I am busy and my parents knew this. I would work, they said.

While on a trip, my Dad saw a man popping kettle corn and it caught his attention. He asked many questions about the process to the man, and learned that kettle corn is an old German way of popping popcorn with sugar. The popcorn pops between 420°- 460° degrees.  When you add the sugar and secret ingredients to the popcorn and vegetable oil in the hot kettle, the sugar breaks down into a liquid.  As the popcorn pops it comes up through the sugar and gives the kernels a sugar coating.   While popping, the kettle is 500° degrees so it is important that it is constantly stirred.  As you stir the popped kernels, it commingles.  Once it is all popped, it is dumped out onto the screening table where it cools.

My Dad came away excited about the possibilities to use this to build on my strengths.  This was a way for me to prove that I could work.  We did a work trial in October of 2000.  The goal was to see if I could work.  We popped on weekends at local grocery stores and I showed Dad I could stay on task for up to 6 hours. In the work trial, Dad saw that I could learn the repetition of the production process. I could pop, and I could bag, both key parts of popping kettle corn.

My parents decided this looked like very promising work for me.  They attended a Davis Hammis presentation at a Partners in Policymaking class in Kansas. It showed that I could OWN my own business.  The key to making Poppin’ Joe’s Kettle Korn come true was having a business plan, doing the work trial, and proving that I could work.

First Steps helped my Mom set up the business plan, and the Kansas Department for Developmental Disabilities provided me with a new business startup grant to purchase new equipment. My start up team included Social Security, which offers a program called PASS (The plan for achieving self-support) and having cash set aside for achieving my business goals. My parents also worked with Vocational Rehab to purchase a computer and laser printer for my business. They submitted my business plan to open Poppin’ Joes Kettle Korn to each of these team members. My team was then able to provide me the startup supports I needed to become the sole proprietor of Poppin Joe’s Kettle Korn in April of 2005.

I offer five products in my business. Cinnamon Kettle Korn, Sweet and Cheesy, Old Fashioned Kettle Korn, White Cheddar popcorn, and Golden Karmel Korn. 65% of my business is through selling at Festivals like the county fairs, car shows and various festivals around Kansas City. 25% of my business is through weekly supplies to specialty stores like gas stations, medical centers and farmer’s markets. The final 10 % is popcorn I sell for special events like weddings, graduations, employee events and internet sales.

My daily business tasks include deliveries, banking, paying my bills, and sending out invoices, as well as popping kettle korn to keep up with the demand. My gross sales starting out were $15,000 in 2005.  They doubled in 2006, and have now have tripled to over $60,000 annually in sales last year! We are a success because of teamwork and the commitment my parents have made to me.

Poppin’ Joe’s Kettle Korn began with the mission of honoring God in all we do. Being a blessing to other people, to pursue excellence, and to grow profitability.  I am a member in the community that I work in, which gives me a place to belong.  I am a contributing citizen and am able to do fundraisers for local churches, schools, businesses and communities events, as well as for many nonprofit organizations.  My community values me – I pay taxes!

In 2008, Poppin Joes helped me move into my own home. I love my freedom! It gives me a great life! I go to work during the day, and hang out and do fun activities at night, just like most business owners. I have many activities I enjoy, like shooting hoops, horseback riding, swimming, traveling, skiing, going to amusement parks, water surfing, sky diving, lifting weights, scuba diving, spending time with my family and friends.  My business has also enabled me to have many adventures, going places and meeting people I would not otherwise get to meet. I have been invited to travel and share my story with groups across the country.  This has brought me many new friends, and expanded my business even further.

I have been blessed by incredible parents who have advocated for me since my birth. They saw my potential. They knew that I could succeed. They have given their time and energy to help make my business a reality and a continued success.  This Down syndrome Awareness Month and Disability Employment Month I want to say Thank You to my advocates since birth, Mom and Dad, Janet and Ray Steffy. I love being Poppin’ Joe!

*Article is from Joe’s Power point presentation he uses with his augmentative device to tell his story.  Joe Steffy is 30 years old and lives in his own apartment in Louisburg, Kansas and is the owner of Popping Joe’s Kettle Korn.