Woodworker with cerebral palsy tackles challenges to open own business


By Rita Price - The Columbus Dispatch (TNS)



COSHOCTON — The cuts and patterns look perfect, or nearly so. That’s often the first thought that comes to mind as Connie Bullens steps into her son’s woodworking shop. The second is a question, posed in a rush of wonder and pride.

“How in the world did you get that done?”

The answer, Bullens knows, is that Jamie Hoy finds a way.

First he puzzles out his designs, deciding on the lines and grains and the type of wood he’ll use to craft one of his cutting boards, quilting-ruler racks or coaster sets. Then he considers the logistics of the task — how big the boards are, the saws and sanders required, how he’ll maneuver his body. Always, the body is part of the equation.

“I tend to think things out,” said Hoy, whose gait, movements and speech are severely affected by cerebral palsy. “Do I need my hands? Can I move that with my arm? I think before I turn the tool on.”

And, he said with a faint grin, “It doesn’t always work out.”

But Hoy didn’t realize his dream of owning his own business by turning away from difficult tasks or abandoning those that end in failure. He tackles challenges, stays patient, and accepts assistance when and where he must.

The result is that after a years-long journey — one marked by more struggle and frustration than many will know in a lifetime — the 40-year-old Coshocton resident can say that his Jamie’s Custom Cutting has taken shape.

“I get a little teary-eyed every time I talk about Jamie,” said Debbie Christmas, an employment navigator at the Coshocton County Board of Developmental Disabilities. “He gets a little teary-eyed at his own story, too.”

Falling to get up

By the time Christmas started working with Hoy about seven years ago, he’d had a series of jobs, including a seasonal stint growing eucalyptus for koalas at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. He also has an associate degree in greenhouse production and management.

But permanent and fulfilling employment proved elusive.

No one seemed to fully grasp her son’s determination and resiliency, said Bullens, 61. “One of the comments on a vocational report said he can’t work in a greenhouse because he might fall down. Well, if he’s not going to do something because he might fall down, then he’s not going to do anything.”

That’s been her attitude for all of Hoy’s life. It’s much of the reason he was among the first students with serious disabilities mainstreamed at his high school, why he participated in 4-H, and why he took a shot at learning to drive (that one didn’t pan out).

“Mom is a lot of the reason Jamie is the way he is,” Christmas said. “She let him fall down. And that’s what he needed. He needed to learn how to fall and know that he could get back up.”

Though he loved working with wood, Hoy hadn’t considered that his interest could be more than a hobby. Christmas, however, saw possibility.

She helped align support from the county board and from the state’s vocational rehabilitation agency, Opportunities for Ohioans With Disabilities, so that he could attempt the leap to entrepreneur. The prospect was both thrilling and terrifying.

“Jamie’s unsteady on his feet; Jamie’s going to be using power saws,” Christmas said to herself at the time. “It scared me.”

That problem was largely solved when the state vocational program invested in high-grade safety equipment for Hoy, who now has a table saw with a blade that automatically stops if it comes into contact with skin. He’s tripped it just a few times in six years.

“There’s a cost to that, and it’s fine,” Christmas said. “You can replace the brakes. You can’t replace fingers.”

A lesson for everybody

Jamie’s Custom Cutting now takes up a small workshop, a section in the back of the living room and most of a three-car garage at the home he and Bullens, a widow, share with her mother, mother-in-law and father-in-law.

The scent of freshly cut wood is ever-present, as are the many finished and in-progress quilts and wall hangings made by the Bullens women. Bullens also helps her son with some of the final touches on his products — oiling the cutting boards, for example — or lending a hand where Hoy’s fine-motor skills aren’t quite sufficient.

“I love going over there,” Christmas said. “It’s such a wonderful family.”

Hoy also relishes support from his community, especially the crews at Auer Ace Hardware in Coshocton and at Keim Lumber in Charm, in the heart of Ohio’s Amish country. Hoy is a regular at both places.

“There’s nobody here that doesn’t respect him,” said Eddie Miller, who works in the tool department at Keim and sometimes stops by Hoy’s shop to adjust his equipment. “The drive that he has is unbelievable. He’s a good lesson for everybody, I think.”

Hoy said he just appreciates being treated like anyone else. Miller and others do their best to understand his speech, which means the world to Hoy. “I don’t always get that,” he said. “It’s harder if they don’t take the time.”

He mainly sells his wares at trade and craft shows, but is ramping up his website so that he can handle more orders online. He’ll also be one of several craftspeople and artists with disabilities with displays in the vendor hall Thursday during the Ohio Association of County Boards annual conference at the Hilton Columbus at Easton.

Hoy admits to being surprised sometimes that people want to buy what he makes.

His mother isn’t. Customers see more than the beauty of wood in his work, Bullens believes. They see perseverance.

“It’s made him happy,” she said. “That’s the most important thing.”

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By Rita Price

The Columbus Dispatch (TNS)

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