Meet Denise Hazen of Aspire Accessories!

Hello Friends-
As we continue our focus on autism this month, I want to shine the light today on my friend Denise Hazen who started Aspire Accessories with her son, Nick.

The organization was founded in 2011 and now operates as a program of Social Motion Skills, which we featured here on the blog last week. The artisans of Aspire create beautiful handcrafted accessories in their studio here in Houston. I am thrilled to feature their necklaces and bracelets in my boutiques and online.

What I love about Aspire Accessories and Social Motion Skills is that their programs bring these kids together in a productive, fulfilling way while also creating a community and fostering friendships. In this video, Denise shares how she really honed in on her son’s strengths and that is what inspired her to start Aspire.

Read on to get to know the lovely and creative Denise Hazen!

Denise Hazen and son Nick, who with his interest in leatherworking, inspired her to start Aspire.

ET: Tell us about Aspire Accessories and who it serves?

DH: Aspire Accessories is a program dedicated to teaching young adults with autism and similar special needs transferable business skills. We currently have 16 Aspire Artisans ranging in age from 20-34 years. The workshop provides an environment to learn meaningful and transferable skills while they are coached, mentored, trained and paid fair wages.

As Creative Director of Aspire Accessories, Denise consults with artisans in the workshop.

ET: When did you start the organization and what was your inspiration? 

DH: I began Aspire Accessories about six years ago with my son, Nicholas, who is on the autism spectrum. I knew Nick had a special talent for detail work so we began working with a leather craftsman making leather bracelets. The popularity of the bracelets began to catch on and soon I was in need of other artisans. Nick’s classmates began to help in the production and post-production of the bracelets. What began as a mother-son endeavor has now become a thriving workshop where we design, make and sell leather accessories and home décor and employ people with disabilities that are capable of work and who want to work.

I have to say the surprise gift of Aspire Accessories is the community these artisans have created. My son now has a real group of friends.

Aspire necklaces feature braided ties that can be worn at varying lengths.
Fine craftsmanship define Aspire Accessories.

ET: How did you and Wendy Dawson of Social Motion Skills join forces?

DH: I met Wendy soon after she formed Social Motion Skills. I was desperate for social programs for Nick and they provided that for us. Wendy and her staff were early supporters of Nick and his bracelets. In fact, on Fridays Nick would go to the SOMO office and create his bracelets in a makeshift workshop they set up for him. They were also responsible for the introduction to the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo Merchandise Committee that transformed Aspire from a hobby to a business.

Wendy and I had always wanted to join forces and in late 2015 the time was right for both of us. We had a tremendous first year together and we expect even greater growth this year. I am so blessed to be part of an organization that believes that we can make a positive change in the lives of these incredible people.

ET: Tell us about the range of responsibilities of the Aspire employees?

DH: Each artisan is taught one skill at a time and as they master the skill they are introduced to a new one.  They participate in pre-production, production, and post-production of products, manage inventory, and participate in sales transactions.

An Aspire artisan sets rivets in a leather bracelet.

They are taught skills such as setting rivets, hand sewing leather bags, hand stamping leather, heat embossing and working the hydraulic press to cut out leather shapes. They are also taught the processes needed in making custom jewelry, key chains, handbags and other leather goods.

At Aspire Accessories we find the strengths in each Artisan and find meaningful work for all.

ET: What is your favorite piece from the Aspire Collection and why?

DH: My favorite piece in the Aspire collection with Elaine Turner has to be the BB necklace. Nick is one of the artisans who patiently braids each necklace. I love how this necklace can be layered with beads, worn as a choker or tied loose and flowing. There are so many ways to wear it, depending on your mood.

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Meet Wendy Dawson of Social Motion Skills!

Hello My Friends-

Last week I wrote about a special Saturday morning working with my son Harrison, his friends and their buddies at Social Motion Skills. It was a morning full of inspiration and I was thrilled to meet Social Motion Skills Founder Wendy Dawson and learn about her organization.

That day I also met Aspire Accessories Creative Director Denise Hazen. Aspire is a program that’s part of the Social Motion Skills organization, and I am thrilled to partner with these organizations and feature their merchandise in-store and online in celebration of Autism Awareness Month.

That day really touched me and I want you guys to get to know Wendy and Denise and their amazing organizations. Today, we chat with Wendy Dawson of Social Motion Skills, and next week we’ll visit with Denise.

Without further ado, here’s Wendy!


ET: Tell us about your organization, Social Motion Skills, and who it serves?

WD: Social Motion, Inc. was founded to meet a gap in services for individuals with social and learning deficits. A local 501(c)3 non-profit organization, Social Motion Skills serves children, adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorders and similar special needs. Its programs equip these individuals with social skills, life skills and workforce readiness in a safe, supportive community. Social Motion works to prepare students for employment, highest-possible functioning and independence. It also provides employers with education and resources for hiring differently-abled workers. To date, Social Motion has served more than 1300 families in the Houston metro area. Basically it boils down to offering social skills, enrichment and transition programs for students ages 3-43. The majority of our students fall in the age range of 8-28.

ET: What was your inspiration?

WD: My stepson was diagnosed with PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified) at the age of two. After he came into my life at age four, his Dad and I spent the next decade scouring the Houston area for social skills classes geared for children on the autism spectrum. We were looking for a program that offered 100% social skills concentration — a stable and sustainable program offering precursory training for the situations he would face for years to come. We did not want anything clinical or temporary. We wanted social skills training focused on personal development, judgment, decision-making and the opportunity to practice those skills in a safe environment as he evolved. We never found it, so in early 2010 we founded Social Motion. It is my sincere hope that what was once missing in our son’s life is now found for other children and their families.

Social Motion Skills Founder Wendy Dawson and friends take a time out from game time.

ET: Tell us about some of your programs.

WD: Social Motion’s vision is to transform the lives of those with social cognitive challenges and our mission is to provide strategies and life-path solutions to enable them to become productive, fulfilled individuals. We are the only non-profit organization in the Greater Houston area that provides this span of highly specialized services to families and individuals who are affected with social cognitive disorders like autism, ADD/ADHD, and learning deficits. Since 2010, our dedicated staff at Social Motion has provided an unparalleled level of personal understanding, vision, expertise, and experience to make a meaningful difference in the lives of every family who seeks assistance. The organization provides social skills classes to students of all ages, support and coaching for families, a specialized driver’s education program for youth, enrichment activities and social groups for youth and young adults, mentoring for autistic teens, transition and job training, and the Aspire Accessories microenterprise program.

Aspire artisans at work.

Our partnership with Elaine Turner involves our training program Aspire Accessories which was created and founded by Denise Hazen in 2011 for her son with autism who had shown fine motor skill talents and an interest in leather working. (Check out Aspire’s lovely handmade necklaces and bracelets here.Denise and I have been friends for a long time, and timing was right in 2016 to bring our programs together. We are two mothers and two sons making one hugely impactful program.

ET: Do you have a success story to share?

WD: I have several to share. Teens Mentoring Teens brings special needs teens together with peer typicals to foster meaningful relationships for both mentor and mentee. (This is the group that Elaine’s son Harrison and friends participate in and she wrote about it here.) This group is proving so successful — so full of love, great teens and goodwill!

Michael Wilson, a graduate of our T3 program (Transition, Training, Taxpaying) is now working at Castaway Rods part-time and at Aspire part-time. He has grown tremendously in his self-confidence, and ability to assimilate into meaningful work. Michael tells how he was lost after high school with no obvious path, no direction, no surety, no community. He has found it all through SoMo, Aspire and purposeful, interesting work at Castaway Rods. Michael is excellent with hands-on work, so our training led naturally into his work at the custom fishing-rod manufacturer. It helps that the owner of Castaway, Mac DeLaup, is an amazing man with a heart bigger than his smile. Michael is a success and has many more successes to come.

The Aspire Accessories program is an amazing success. Last year Aspire racked up over $100,000 in sales without a storefront and with the most expensive item being $68. The sales came from friends, pop-up shops at local holiday markets and from major orders from large clients who believe in our mission, like the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. Not only was success measured in gross sales, but more importantly for us, we paid approximately $31,000 in wages to our Aspire Artisans for their diligent work.

ET: How can readers help or get involved with your organization?

WD: Readers can get involved in a variety of ways from the most simple social media “share” to telling a friend in need about our program. We have something for all ages. We love volunteers — mature volunteers who can assist and mentor in our workshop and student volunteers who want to work and learn alongside our students.

We especially need employers who have the heart and mindset to employ these amazing young adults when they finish our program. Ideally these employers value diligent, loyal employees who will love their job and spread that joy to customers. They are employers who want to make a social responsibility message that their workforce mimics the real world and families from all walks of life, and all are welcome at their place of business.

Other than supporting our mission by purchasing a beautiful handcrafted necklace at Elaine Turner boutiques and online this month, we always need donations. Approximately one third of our operating revenue comes from sliding scale tuition, and we rely on the generosity of donors for the balance. We focus on quality over quantity so our student to teacher ratio is low. What we do is expensive but effective and the long term results are priceless.

ET: What is your favorite accessory from the Social Motion/Aspire Accessories collection at Elaine Turner and why?

WD: My favorite accessory in the collection has to be the Lucky Val choker. Not only is it beautiful, simple, timeless, and easy to wear, but I know the amazing young lady for whom it was named. Just thinking about Val brings a smile to my face. The necklace that carries her name furthers the good feelings and happiness when I wear it out in the world. (Plus, people always compliment me on it!! :))

ET: What have you learned since founding SoMo and what does the future hold?

WD: One of the differentiating factors about Social Motion and the Aspire program is the sense of community that we create for our families and their students. Denise and I like to be windows to the world for those raising children on the spectrum behind us. We truly hope what was once missing from our family’s lives will be available to those who follow us. We focus on life path needs.

We’re not perfect, we create, morph and adjust daily, but that’s life as we learn and accommodate and provide. We include students and their parents. We create events where they can celebrate their differences with age appropriate activities. We create a safe place for them to learn and grow. At the heart of it all, we create an environment where these great kids can achieve, feel a sense of self-esteem, believe that they have a place and purpose, and are valuable contributors to our community. We live our mission statement which is to transform the lives of those with social cognitive differences such as autism and other similar special needs.

Currently, my son Cameron (age 21) is completing his junior year at Texas Tech. The CASE program there provides just enough support while letting him spread his wings. Nick (Denise’s son, age 21) is a major producer and talented artisan in the Aspire Accessories workshop. Our long term goals are focused on housing options for our adult children with varying degrees of needs.

Be sure to check back next week. We’ll be chatting with Aspire Accessories Creative Director Denise Hazen!

P.S. If you enjoyed this post, I’d be thrilled if you’d share it. And don’t forget to follow and subscribe to Join the Collective!