Deaf Initiatives’ Keepsake Theme Quilts: Sustainable, Responsible Growth of a Social Enterprise

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Founded in 1998, the nonprofit Deaf Initiatives works to strengthen the potential of youth who are deaf or hard of hearing. Deaf Initiatives’ Executive Director Meredith Crane foresaw the need to build and grow a social enterprise to support and sustain the nonprofit’s initiatives. In 1999, Deaf Initiatives launched its social enterprise, Keepsake Theme Quilts (KTQ), to generate revenue to support its initiatives and further its social impact by employing youth and individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.

The social mission of KTQ is to hire, train and promote deaf individuals in a productive work environment free from communication barriers, where they produce unique, quality T-shirt quilts that exceed customers’ expectations.

In its first year, KTQ produced and sold 86 quilts. Since then it has ramped up operations, selling 1,089 custom quilts in 2016 alone—bringing the total number of quilts produced to 8,250.KeepsakeThemeQuiltsLogo

With its current team of 23 individuals, eight sewing machines, three sergers and two embroidery machines, the social enterprise operates out of a building in downtown Bexley. From creating Memory Quilts from items of clothing or other memorabilia of a loved one who has passed, Baby Quilts that artistically preserve outfits and baby blankets, to sports uniforms to archive a high school student’s athletic endeavors, or hobbies (such as marathons or concert t-shirts), KTQ has employed more than 100 deaf or hard of hearing individuals since launch.

Customers deliver multiple items of clothing or memorabilia to be incorporated into their custom quilt, and the organization maintains a large stock of fabric choices, machines and desks, all of which requires space and attention to detail. Every inch of the four floors of the converted home is used to its fullest capacity.

“Often in the workplace, deaf individuals might struggle to communicate their thoughts and opinions,” Crane says. “But because everyone who works here is fluent in American Sign Language, we’ve created an environment where there are no barriers to communication. Everyone here is committed to doing great work and growing professionally. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about working here—people can do anything if given the opportunity.”

deafinitiativesKTQ is structured like other similarly-sized enterprises—employing an office manager, to a marketer, to interns, to a production manager, and of course, several quilters. Everyone has a defined role within the organization.

Kathleen Waters has worked at KTQ for nearly six years.

“I was born deaf, but grew up in a hearing world,” Waters shares. “While I like both worlds, they are just very different. I have to gesture and hand-write things all the time. At KTQ, there truly are no barriers to communication. I’ve made hundreds of quilts (I’ve lost count), but the ones that stand out have been the Memory Quilts. One customer lost her husband to pancreatic cancer and had quilts made for her two adult sons. That was very touching.”

Within the organization, Robert works on compiling fabric colors and samples that will be included in the sample packets sent to prospective customers. Aaron, KTQ’s digital marketing intern for three months, attends Rochester Institute of Technology. Aaron works alongside Jessica, who manages the organization’s marketing and website content.

“I could have hired a [hearing] intern from any of our local universities, but as a social enterprise, we filter all of our decisions through our mission and the impact we want to achieve,” Crane says. “We are happy to have Aaron with us and to offer him one of the two internships he needs to complete his degree.”

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KTQ aims to help even more individuals.

“With increased sales comes the reward of increasing our impact and employing even more individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing,” Crane says. “But the challenge, like any startup, is to grow the enterprise responsibly and sustainably.”

KTQ does even more than create and sell custom quilts. The nonprofit provides work experiences and employment opportunities to the deaf and hard of hearing youth. Through its Work Experience Program, high school students help run KTQ’s Be Warm Project. These KTQ interns upcycle extra materials to craft everything from tote bags with ‘I love you’ in sign language on them, to hats, scarves and blankets to give to these families experiencing homelessness throughout Central Ohio.

KTQ also donates materials to the James Cancer Hospital’s quilting group, contributes material to My Very Own Blanket, an initiative for incarcerated individuals, and collaborates with The Love Blanket Project out of Maryland that donates quilts to children undergoing treatment for cancer.

“Our employees contribute meaningfully to the local economy and our customers through their work,” Crane says. “They add value. And, we are very active in giving back to the community.”

By supporting KTQ through your purchases and contributions, you will help support the organization’s marketing efforts for continued growth, help purchase new equipment—and of course, help to provide even more employment opportunities for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.

For more information, visit tshirtquilts.com

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The Center for Social Enterprise Development (CSED) maintains a directory of social enterprises throughout Central Ohio. We have developed many at-a-glance profiles for each social enterprise, intended to inform consumers, funders, impact investors and individual donors of investment-worthy causes. Here are the social enterprises we’ve identified to date, whose focus is creating social impact for individuals with developmental disabilities. We encourage you to learn more, consider supporting these organizations, or inform us of additional social enterprises that share this focus.

Central Ohio’s social enterprises dedicated to creating positive change for individuals with developmental disabilities: 

ARC Industries [profile] [website]
Art & Clay on Main [profile] [website]
Citra [website]
Deaf Initiatives’ Keepsake Theme Quilts [website]
ds-connex [website]
Food for Good Thought [profile] [website]
Goodwill Columbus [website]
Kicks Mix Bookstore [profile] [website]
Lettuce Work [profile] [website]
Mentoring Individuals with Disabilities BizHub [website]
Pearl Interactive Network [profile] [website]
Square Seven Coffee House [profile] [website]
Sunapple Kitchens [profile] [website]

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