Woodstock Hill Preserves partners with NEPS

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Woodstock - posted Tue., Nov. 27, 2012
Maureen Estony and Terri Smith stand with a sampler box. Photos by D. Coffey.
Maureen Estony and Terri Smith stand with a sampler box. Photos by D. Coffey.

Maureen Estony watched as a crew piled more than 2,000 of her Woodstock Hill Preserves cardboard boxes in the office of Piece Works Unlimited at the Little River Plaza Shopping Center in Woodstock. The delivery marked the beginning of a partnership between Estony and Northeast Placement Services, who will provide the labor to turn the cardboard into boxes for WHP jam samplers.

The partnership marks a turning point for Estony, who had been running WHP part-time for 15 years. “I already knew I had a product that sold,” she said. “I knew it was a good product. I just didn't know how I wanted to grow the business.” It took her two years to figure it out. She invested in steam kettles and automatic fillers. She wanted to make sure she could find a way to scale up and still maintain the quality of her small batch, local, preservative-free products.

She kept hearing about the flood of fundraisers being held and the complaints many people had about the items they purchased from them. “A common criticism was that people were buying things they didn't want or need,” Estony said. “I thought if I made a different kind of fundraiser, it might work.” Her solution: Jam-boree gift boxes. She calls them a fundraiser rooted in the agricultural nature of Connecticut.

The fruits that make the jam come from Connecticut farms. The honey is supplied by Norman's Sugarhouse in Woodstock. The preserves are crafted in Woodstock. The boxes that hold them are produced at Norampac in Thompson. The jam spreaders are made by David Hancock, of Hancock Forest Products. And now the people making those sample boxes, and delivering them to the schools, hospitals and churches selling them, are NEPS clients.

NEPS job coach Rose Boudreau said the partnership gives her clients one more opportunity to work for wages. NEPS provides vocational services to individuals with disabilities. Currently NEPS clients can work in a variety of settings. There are janitorial and outdoor crews. The Shoppes at Sawmill employ clients, as does Staples warehouse. Clients have worked as receptionists in the NEPS offices and at PWU in Woodstock. “Working with WHP is another way our clients have to make money,” she said.

On the day the boxes were delivered, four clients were putting together chain sets for Rogers Corporation. The sets are sales tools for showing pieces of poron, a rubber-based foam product, to potential customers. Before the sets are complete, 3-inch square pieces of poron must have labels affixed to them, and a chain linking them together. Clients are paid in accordance with Department of Labor timings. It's a standardized rate of pay determined by the state, said Boudreau. The faster the chain sets are produced, the more money a person earns. The process works the same whether clients are putting together binders and chain sets for Rogers Corp or sample boxes for WHP.

Estony said that she had NEPS in mind from the beginning. “It just seemed like an appropriate matching of work and skills,” she said. It was at a Celebrating Agriculture event that Estony connected with Terri Smith, a NEPS job coach. Estony was at a point where her business was exploding and she needed help.

“Celebrating Agriculture was the door that opened for us to reconnect,” said Smith. “That's where our Piece Works Unlimited is going to help her. Our clients will assemble her jam boxes. Another crew will make deliveries to schools and places that sell her products.”

The future might hold more WHP job opportunities for clients if business keeps growing. Estony estimates that her first year sales have grown 250 percent. And she has made connections with roots throughout the state. FFA students have signed onto the fundraisers.

Farms who sell to WHP have the option of having a label attached to preserves made from their fruit. Estony estimates that about 25-percent of the jam-boree box price goes back into the pockets of local farmers.

Estony isn't the only one excited about the possibilities. “She's got exciting ideas about the future of her business,” Smith said, looking at the boxes piled high at Piece Works. “She wants to keep the product local and work with local businesses. She's in the middle of grant writing and wants to expand the business and help the community and the farmers. So it's exciting.”

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