POINT PLEASANT BEACH, NJ — When Phyllis Thomson was teaching in the Point Pleasant Borough Schools, she spent her days connecting her students with work opportunities in the world.

“They worked at Ocean Medical Center, at White Sands, at Allaire Farms,” Thomson said recently. Her students — young adults who had intellectual and developmental disabilities — were learning life skills for beyond high school, to help them be part of the community.

“I put the students out in the community as a job coach,” she said.

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Thomson retired last year after 16 years as a special education teacher, but quickly realized she needed something to keep her busy. So did her best friend, Jane Carroll, who had retired two years ago after working as the business manager at a medical facility.

“Phyllis and I always wanted to open a business,” Carroll said. Restaurants weren’t a consideration because they are too high-pressure, Thomson said.

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They realized, however, that there was a void that needed to be filled: jobs for students with special needs after they age out of school-based programs at age 21.

“Sometimes when they age out of school there’s not much for them to do,” Thomson said. “Unless they’re totally independent there’s a void.”

A Gift From The Heart was born.

The nonprofit, which opened at 715 Arnold Ave. at the end of June, sells handcrafted items made by young adults who work there, an idea that spawned from what Thomson had done with the students in school.

While in high school the students created giftware that they designed, produced, packaged, and sold to retail stores in the community, the women said. Some designed products, some made the products, packaged and tagged them. Others kept track of production, inventory, sales, and profits.

“They were selling their crafts at some stores,” said Carroll, who got to know Thomson went their children were in school at St. Peter’s in Point Pleasant Beach, and that prompted the thought of creating the business.

They started out working out of Thomson’s home, but “we decided we needed a retail space where the kids could have a place to work, learn and socialize,” Carroll said.

The students get the opportunity to learn about all that goes with retail, from ordering items to ringing up sales on the register.

“Some like to just sit and create,” Carroll said. A sampling of their crafts can be seen on the shop’s Instagram account. One young man makes birdhouses. A young woman who has cerebral palsy makes up kits that people can purchase to put together crafts. Others are creating tags and helping to organize the store. The shop also has vendors they buy from to stock the store.

“We’re not doing busy work,” Thomson said. “It’s a business. It’s just a low-key business.”

“They just love to do anything. A lot of them are sitting at home,” Carroll said. “Everybody has fun here. They enjoy each other … it’s just really sweet.”

Some of the students — all from families Thomson knew when she was teaching — go to day programs for adults with disabilities. Some work jobs elsewhere in the community, including at Stop & Shop and Jenkinson’s Aquarium.

But A Gift From The Heart is special, the women said.

“When one of my students says, ‘This is my best job ever,’ it’s a great feeling,” Thomson said.

Thomson and Carroll said one of the keys has been the support and help they have had. Carroll’s husband, Thomas, serves on the board of directors for the nonprofit, which received its 501(c)(3) status approval in December.

In addition, Kathy Mastellone, Kathy Dinkowitz and Diane Andrukite, who were paraprofessionals in the Point Pleasant Schools, volunteer their time to help some of the participants who need one-on-one assistance.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do all of this without them,” Carroll said.

The business is running on donations, the women said, and they have received tremendous support from the community so far. Joe Leone Introna of Joe Leone’s Italian Specialty Store and Jimmy Miller of Jimmy Cucina Pizza both have held fundraisers for the shop to help cover rent and expenses for inventory.

“Joe Leone and Jimmy Miller — without them we wouldn’t be here,” Thomson said. “We just hope we can survive.”

“At some point we would love to make enough money for everyone to make some money,” she said.

They are looking for other ways to raise money to support the store, because the mission of providing a place for young adults with disabilities to do job training after they age out of school is important to them, Thomson said.

“Grants are tough because they want you in business for three years,” she said. They have been sending letters to various potential donors, and they have other fundraisers in the works, including a 50/50 raffle.

“There is a need and place for these young adults in our community in a retail setting,” the store’s website says.

“Just seeing the kids here, their reaction and how they love it, they’re just welcoming each other,” Thomson said. “I’m just glad I can do this.”

People who would like to donate to support the mission of A Gift From The Heart can do so in a few different ways: Purchasing tickets for the 50/50 raffle at the shop or by mailing donations to A Gift From The Heart, 715 Arnold Ave., Point Pleasant Beach NJ 08742.

“We have a wall of donors,” Thomson said. “And just come and support our store.”

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