Legal News Reporter
Published: January 12, 2012
It was created almost 15 years ago to help a close friend with Down Syndrome, but over the years, Youngstown-based Iron and String Life Enhancement, Inc. (ISLE) has grown in size and offerings, all designed to help disabled adults lead healthy, independent and productive lives.
“I founded the company in 1998,” said James Sutman, director and owner of ISLE. “At the time I was working for Mahoning County, writing behavioral plans for the adult service sheltered workshops when Joe Gallagher’s brother approached me, asking me to start respite care or residential facilities for adults with disabilities.”
Sutman said he had known the family for a long time, and he really cared about Joe, so he decided to give it a try.
“Joe loved me more than anybody. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone like him. He would always follow me around, and we had become such good friends that it was natural that his family would come to me and ask for help.”
Although his degree was in journalism, Sutman said he decided early on that his real “calling” was to help adults with special needs.
“My first job out of college was at a local TV station, and I needed additional work to complement my wages. I had a cousin with Down Syndrome, and people suggested that I try working with children at the Leonard Kirtz School. They (the school) asked if I would work with adults, and I agreed. I loved it, and I have never looked back since.”
When the company first began, it provided residential housing in Mahoning and Trumbull counties to adults with disabilities, who could rent the units, with ISLE employees handling transportation, medical appointments and financial services.
As the residential end of the business grew, Sutman decided to take the business in a different direction, providing what he calls “Day Habilitation,” which ranges from vocational training to recreational opportunities.
He opened three sites in Youngstown called “The Purple Cat,” each one offering different programming and employment opportunities for disabled adults 22 or older. The main campus in downtown Youngstown is located at 117 S. Champion St., and focuses on creative arts, with participants or clients being taught to paint, draw, write, and sew as well as how to make ceramics and jewelry.
“There is also an emphasis on exercise since the YMCA is right next door,” said Sutman.
The east side site at 334 N. Pearl St. features a fully functioning kitchen, where clients make and sell meals to company employees and those in the downtown area. Others learn office skills and in some cases, serve as DJ’s for ISLE’s Internet radio station, goldenstringradio.org, where listeners can call in and make requests.
The third location is a 52-acre farm in Coitsville, where clients grow crops and provide animal care. It is large enough for sporting events and there is also a seven-acre lake with a wheelchair-accessible deck, where clients can fish or go boating.
In addition to the Purple Cat facilities, Sutman also opened Touch the Moon Candy Saloon at 8 S. Phelps Street in 2005. The store specializes in “nostalgic” and regional candy that is hard to find in many stores.
“Touch The Moon Candy Saloon was designed solely for employment for adults with special needs,” said Sutman. “We picked a location close to city hall to help increase business.
“All of our clients get paid at least minimum wage for the services they perform,” said Sutman. “Their schedules vary based on how many hours they want to work, and which location they choose. Sometimes one person might want to work 40 hours, another might want to work three days, and another person might want to split the time between all three sites. We don’t try and make them fit into a mold.”
Although Sutman uses clients to help run his endeavors, he also employs over 200 other people, with the vast majority residing in Mahoning County. His wife Jill Perencevic, serves as director of The Purple Cat as well as overseeing the candy store.
“When Jim started the business, I was working as a case worker for the Mahoning County Board of Developmental Disabilities,” said Perencevic, who left her job to join her husband in 2004 after a director at ISLE left the company.
“When I took over, I began recreating the wheel so to speak. My degree was in rehabilitative sciences, which was geared toward helping the developmentally disabled. I never thought I would be able to put it to any practical use, but my work with ISLE is allowing me to do that.”
Perencevic said she tries to design the programs around “the way I would like to spend my day, and whenever I get suggestions, I explore them and see if I think other people might find them rewarding. We’ve had programs that did not last, sometimes because they required too long of an attention span or were too technical.”
She said the Internet radio station has proven to be one of the most successful and exciting ideas yet. “We started with two program sites, where we set up a computer and speaker in the building with clients playing music and doing announcements. They were very good at it, so we turned it into a station and now they run it by themselves.
“Our farm will soon have a small petting zoo, housing alpacas, miniature goats, chickens, rabbits, dogs and cats. It is a working farm and our clients plant crops and run the equipment. They have even taught us a few things.
“We use the jalapeno peppers to make our Purple Cat Jalapeno Hot Pepper Jelly. Our clients pick the peppers and chop them up, and we send them out to be processed. They also help package the jars. Last year we sold about 1,000 jars.
“I try and pair up the clients with jobs based on their skills,” said Perencevic. “Each one is performing a valuable function that we need done in order to keep going. They can do almost anything I need.
“What is amazing about my clients is that they don’t see their disabilities or those of others. They are very accepting of each other and they have an amazing strength and confidence.”
Of course, running so many different outlets comes with its challenges, but Perencevic said she enjoys what she does.
“It’s not even like a job. It’s more of a lifestyle that my husband and I live. It can be hard sometimes, raising money for a new program and setting it up, but once it’s established, it’s great and then I try and move on to the next thing. Jim allows me to be creative. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have this as an outlet.”
Sutman isn’t finished just yet. He is currently trying to buy the vacant Kress Building on West Federal Street in Youngstown, with the goal of expanding the office space for The Purple Cat and perhaps providing residential housing there as well. ISLE currently has 52 residential clients.
“When I jumped into this, I had no idea it would blossom into multiple businesses and clients. I just let our clients with disabilities guide me. I try my best to assess their needs and develop programs and businesses to support them,” said Sutman.