Camdenton spice shop teaches needed job skills
Careful measurements are being made in the back of the spice shop. Rebecca Christiansen points out which spices need to be measured, put into jars and labeled for sale. Someone walks in the shop’s storefront on the downtown square and Rebecca tells them about all the products available. But this is more than just your garden variety spice shop; it has a higher purpose.
A Pinch of Happiness sells high-quality, housemade spice blends, oils, extracts, coffee and more in Camdenton. The store partners with members of the community and local schools to help give those with disabilities much-needed job and interpersonal skills.
The store operates under the umbrella of Celebrate Differences, a nonprofit that Rebecca founded in 2007 when living in Illinois. She was called to action after her son Ryan was born with Down syndrome.
“I got highly involved with the Down syndrome community, but I wanted to branch out and help all the kids with different disabilities,” she says. “At one point we had an adult program, and what I really found was they didn’t all have the skills they needed to go out and find a job. Some of them were getting out of high school and transitioning to Mom or Dad’s sofa.”
As Celebrate Differences continued its mission in Illinois, Rebecca — a former nurse — was looking for ways to help those with disabilities get the skills they needed. “I got this wild hair and decided we should buy a business,” she says. “A spice shop became available for sale and we bought it. I didn’t know anything about spices and really wasn’t even a good cook. I just knew this would be an opportunity for these kids to get job skills.”
Rebecca learned the ropes through on-the-job training and opened A Pinch of Happiness in Oswego, Illinois in 2016. Three years later her family was looking for a fresh start. Her husband was in the position to retire and they were looking for a school with more opportunities for Ryan. They’d always vacationed at the Lake of the Ozarks and they had family nearby. Camdenton was the perfect location.
“The school district was a great fit, and this location was open and so close to the school itself,” says Rebecca, a member of Southwest and Laclede electric cooperatives. “We didn’t waste any time. We knew we had to be open for the holiday season. We bought the building and started renovating in August 2019 and were able to open in November.”
The program pairs the store with individuals with disabilities from the community and schools. They go through an 8- to 12-week internship where they learn all the different aspects of the store, preparing them with job skills to use in the future.
“When we started this, I didn’t really know all the skills they would take with them,” Rebecca says. “They learn how to interact with customers and work on money skills like counting back change. They learn how to work with others and how you might treat a boss differently than a coworker. Then they’re learning how to measure out certain amounts of each spice for all of our blend recipes. They get their food handler certification which they can take with them when they leave.”
Kamden Wimberley started working at A Pinch of Happiness just as the store reopened after closing in early 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Miranda, Kamden’s mother, says the program helped the student grow on multiple fronts.
“Her autism sometimes causes her to have issues talking with people,” Miranda says. “She really loved learning about the spices and becoming more comfortable talking to the customers and giving them information. She really improved in the program.”
Miranda says Kamden stayed in the program while building her job skills and eventually Rebecca helped her find another job.
Rebecca keeps about 10 interns in the program at a time, each scheduled for different days and hours. However, no one is there forever.
“It’s bittersweet because you get so close when you’re working with and training them. But you know they need to get out and transition into the workforce,” says Rebecca. “The purpose of the spice shop is actually twofold. It gives these young adults these skills and training. But, it also showcases to other business owners that they’re very capable and willing. You just have to work with them and give them a chance.”
The store offers around 500 different products, but is most known for their signature, housemade spice blends. The most popular is the Happy Pepper Blend. The blend features black pepper ground into three different sizes, garlic, onion and red and green peppers. She says part of what makes the blend so popular is that it doesn’t include any salt. “That’s the one thing that if we don’t have it in stock people will be upset,” Rebecca says with a laugh.
Another favorite is the garlicky Village Seasoning. Rebecca says many customers are drawn to the store because of some of the out-of-the-ordinary products they stock such as Mexican oregano, Hungarian paprika, pink Himalayan salt, allspice and more. “People will stop by because they know they can find things here that they might not find in other places unless they want to get a big box of it from Amazon,” she says. “And this is fresher and available in a smaller amount.”
Rebecca has plans to open a nearby coffee shop — A Cup of Happiness — which could be staffed by those who have finished the internship program at the spice shop, giving them even more critical job skills. She hopes those skills will give the young adults a leg up on being successful in finding employment.
“People need to know that all these individuals — like everybody else — just need to be given a chance,” she says. “And if they are given that chance, you’re going to be surprised by what they can do and accomplish.”