ELKHORN, Wis. — As graduation approaches, many teens are preparing for life beyond high school, but some with special needs are struggling to find options. One Elkhorn mother decided to create her own solution, and it could lead to a brighter future for her daughter.
16-year-old Stephanie Catozzi loves to draw smiley faces. And that smile jumps right off the page when she's with her family. "She can't write her name so she would sign cards, and everything, with smiley faces," explained Becky Catozzi, her mother.
The Catozzis want to keep that smile shining big and bright but they worry about Stephanie's future. "At this point, we assume she's always going to be living with us," continued Becky. "That's the safest for her now."
Stephanie has been diagnosed with autism, apraxia, and a learning disability. As her peers start exploring options after high school — like college or a job — Stephanie's mom says Stephanie struggles with people crowding her space, and overstimulation, and it can come out as aggression. "Something could happen — and she gets upset and we don't know how that would work in a regular job with other people, around strangers, around noises," said Becky.
That's why the family launchedStephanie's Shirt Shop. They hope to build an online business big enough to create a stable future for Stephanie and eventually hire others with special abilities in the area.
Once Stephanie turns 18, she becomes eligible to receive support from the Walworth County Aging & Disability Resource Center. Every county in Wisconsin has an ADRC.
"The options that are available — you'd be surprised," said Hazel Miller, an ADRC supervisor for Milwaukee County. "There are a lot of free resources in the community that are available for people with disabilities." In Milwaukee County, Miller works with nearly three dozen counselors focused on meeting with families to set goals, find resources, and create action plans. "I'm always talking with families and parents and saying 'Hey — you're not doing this alone, we're here. We have the resources, we have the services, we wanna walk this with you.'"
The Catozzis are open to exploring programs for adults with disabilities and as Autism Awareness Month comes to an end, they hope you carry forward the message of inclusion they're working to spread. "Just learning that they (people living with Autism) are still people," said Becky. "There's nothing wrong with them. They don't need to be fixed or cured. Accept them for who they are. Stephanie is just is a happy 16-year-old girl."
The motto that's printed on the shirts for sale in Stephanie's shop reads "Just Include Everybody" and each shirt features a smiley face drawn by Stephanie. The Catozzi's believe that no matter what challenges you might face in life, everyone deserves to be included. They've faced this dilemma many times. As Stephanie grew older the family says it became harder to find things that could be adapted to her needs. "We took her to fairs, we took her to church every weekend," recalled Becky. "She was involved in everything and as she got older there were less and less things for her to do. You know, everyone just wants to be included. Nobody wants to be left out. Everyone wants to have a purpose."
The shirtsare printed at a local shop in Elkhorn, and so far, Stephanie has helped send almost 300 orders to customers in 20 different states.