By Debbie Adams
One of the most fascinating aspects of attending sessions of the Gauntlet Business Program and Competition each year as a reporter is learning how the entrepreneurs came up with the ideas for their new product or service.
Janice Foster is a member of the 2020 Gauntlet class. Her grandchildren are the ones who inspired her new business, “Meme’s Fidget Aprons.”
Foster is originally from Vinton, graduating from William Byrd in the Class of 1977. She was a restaurant manager for Heironimus department stores in Roanoke and Lynchburg for 20 years. When the chain closed, she continued to work for Glenn Lavinder, an executive with Heironimus, and his Quizno’s Subs restaurants for several years more.
She retired 10 years ago due to health issues; her husband passed away, and she found time on her hands. She has sold jewelry at craft fairs and festivals in the years since, but really was not looking to start up a business. But that’s the direction her life took thanks to two of her grandchildren with special needs. (She has 12 grandchildren in all, 10 of them under 9 years of age.)
Foster’s daughter Morgan and her husband, Pastor Jeremy Jones, have six children— four biological and twins with special needs who were adopted. The Joneses began fostering the twins when they were 3 weeks old; they are now 2 years of age.
The Joneses serve at a church in Edon, Ohio. When Foster and Morgan’s mother-in-law, Cindi, went to visit, Morgan introduced them to a community group there who complete sewing projects as a ministry— including fidget blankets and aprons for adults. Fidget blankets and aprons and fidget toys are popular items for adults with Alzheimer’s, dementia, or brain trauma. They provide tactile input; keep busy hands active; and are relaxing— easing stress and anxiety.
The pair thought of making the fidget aprons for the twins. All their grandchildren were thrilled with the aprons and found them “so cool” as did other people who saw them and wanted ones of their own.
That’s how Foster’s new business got its start and has now evolved into making fidget aprons for both children and adults, ages 1 year and up. Aprons seemed to be a better option than blankets since they can be held in place more readily– draped around the neck, tied or not tied.
Foster’s older daughter Shelly Moses has four children and encouraged her mother to think not just of children and adults with special needs in creating the aprons, but of all children.
Foster’s research led her to discover a myriad of benefits from the fidget aprons. They are not just calming and relaxing to use, but also provide sensory stimulation for the brain— even for those without special needs.
She says that while modern handheld technology has its uses, keeping children pacified with games and movies while traveling, or at a restaurant, or in other situations which require being quietly occupied, fidget aprons are more stimulating for the brain.
Individuals with autism have difficulty engaging and communicating with others. “The last thing they need is to be drawn more inward by using technology; they need to look up and engage and focus outside themselves.” That is what a fidget apron can accomplish.
The aprons may be especially appealing to “Crunchy Moms” who are environmentally, socially, and health conscious, striving for a more natural lifestyle for their children and families— and minimizing technology.
Foster plans to run her business from her home, designing and creating the fidget aprons. She purchases the basic aprons (it’s more cost and time-effective) and then attaches a variety of fidget items and pockets to keep them in.
On the children’s aprons she includes a soft book and a “lovie,” along with balls and other toys, gadgets, doodads, ribbons, and different fabric textures. She has discovered a unique reversible sequin fabric that keeps busy hands occupied moving the sequins back and forth making new patterns.
She keeps her eye out for objects, yarns, and fabrics that could be used. One apron includes a section of a microfiber mop; others have “chewies” at the neckline for children— another sensory stimulation.
Each apron she has made has included a zipper and one or more pockets. She has added key chains with photos of family and pets, which can be detached when the aprons need laundering. She makes adult aprons with themes— such as cooking items with utensils in the pockets.
She has found that her (and her customers’) imagination is the only limit to what can be included on the aprons.
Foster plans to make custom orders so that a child’s favorite toy or an item that has special meaning for an adult can be included or a special theme can be used.
She also plans to customize in another unique way— by adding buttons to spell out the apron owner’s name on the apron. Adding the names can even be done on site when she sells her aprons at craft fairs and festivals. (Look for her at this year’s Vinton Dogwood Festival.)
She will be charging $35 for children’s aprons and $45 for adults.
Foster plans to advertise online through social media, and potentially distribute flyers at facilities that work with her target customers— parents, grandparents, and caregivers. Her first posting of photos of the aprons on Facebook drew several inquiries in just the first evening. She hopes to eventually establish an Etsy site.
As for how she became involved in the Gauntlet Business Program and Competition, Foster attended the “Financial Peace” class two years ago through the McLeod Foundation. The class teaches participants how to save for emergencies, education, and retirement, how to eliminate debt, how to invest, how to avoid scams, how to pay off mortgages early, and how to build wealth and give. Those who complete the program are eligible for matching grants and even VIDA (Virginia Individual Development Accounts) matching grants. In Vinton, the Financial Peace classes, VIDA, and the Gauntlet program have become intertwined.
While selling jewelry at the Vinton Farmers’ Market, Foster became aware of the availability of the Gauntlet classes and competition. That led her to the 2020 Gauntlet.
The Gauntlet is a 10-week community-focused, comprehensive business development program and competition catering to the needs of local entrepreneurs by providing innovative strategies and regional resources. The program was established by Annette Patterson and the Advancement Foundation and is now in its sixth year. The 2020 group is the largest Gauntlet class in their history with 157 participants and $300,000 in cash and prizes to be awarded at the end in May.
Entrepreneurs participate in weekly business training sessions, meet and network with successful entrepreneurs, fellow Gauntlet participants, and mentors, and develop business strategies that provide a roadmap to success.
Foster says she has learned a great deal in just the first four weeks of the Gauntlet, especially about networking with fellow entrepreneurs. The Gauntlet assigns a mentor to each participant to help them develop their individual business as well. The program also guarantees some type of cash or in-kind prize at the end to those who enter the competition.
Foster sings the praises of all these programs— Financial Peace, VIDA, and the Gauntlet. She has been amazed at the generosity she has encountered in the programs. “It feels awesome to be a part of a community that cares so much about people.” She says many people aren’t aware that these programs are so readily available to them.
If you would like to order a fidget apron or would like more information, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.