Amanda Owen’s older brother, Nick, was diagnosed with a rare chromosomal disability at six months old. Doctors told the family that there were only 10 other cases, and all 10 affected were in institutions. Fortunately, Nick’s school went above and beyond in caring for him, always making sure he had time and space to socialize with others. Amanda’s and Nick’s parents worked overtime to ensure he was always included, and Nick thrived. After Nick finished school, Amanda noticed he was regressing without inclusion and social contact.
“Everybody always saw Nick for what he couldn’t do or what his struggles were, and I hated that because no one saw him for the things he could do,” Owen said.
That oversight on the part of others inspired her to create the nonprofit Puzzle Pieces, which opened its doors 10 years ago. Based in Kentucky, it works to make sure individuals with disabilities feel empowered, have a sense of community, and get an equal chance at employment.
Over the last decade, Puzzle Pieces has grown significantly and now supports more than 400 individuals by offering vocational training and job placement, behavior services, residential living, and the region’s only autism programming.
With a staff of more than 100, the nonprofit now has three residential homes that house nine clients with round-the-clock care. There, clients learn how to keep a home and cook, bolstering their sense of family and preparing them for independence.
Puzzle Pieces offers numerous programs tailored to each individual’s needs. The Social Community Program is for children and adults who need one-on-one experience, group, or respite support. The Adult Vocational Program works with people over 16 who need life and independence skills designed to help prepare them for a job. The Employment Opportunities program offers assisted employment for those with cognitive and physical disabilities. This program helps them explore different career options and develop skills that help them reach their career goals. In its first two years, the employment program placed 23 people in local area jobs.
The Owen Autism Center is the only one of its kind in Kentucky. The school accepts students ages 3 to 21 and is designed to run alongside regular elementary and high school education. The center targets the individual’s goals and helps them transition to a job or higher education.
“My goal for Puzzle Pieces is to continue to create opportunities for those with disabilities in my community. I want to live in an inclusive community that values individuals with disabilities,” Owen said. “I want the people that I serve to be thought of first instead of last and have a seat at the table. I eventually want to franchise our nonprofit and help other communities become more inclusive and value their neighbors with disabilities.”