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Campbell embroidery business supports people with disabilities

San Jose Mercury News - 5/12/2024

In Campbell, a turtle and an embroidery shop share a common thread: they are used by a small business to support people with disabilities like autism.

Founded in 2020 by Cupertino resident Sherry Meng, Turtleworks is known by South Bay residents for being an accessible custom embroidery service where people of all abilities can work together.

The business’s mascot is the humble turtle, and serves as a reminder that anyone, no matter their pace or ability, can work hard and achieve their goals, Meng said.

Local businesses and private parties can place orders online or in-person at Turtleworks’ West Campbell Avenue office, located west of San Tomas Expressway. With the help of several commercial embroidery machines, the crew stitches uniform designs onto dozens of bags, caps, shirts and more.

Although only a handful of employees and interns work consistently on orders, the business collaborates with nearby Fremont Union, Campbell Union and Los Gatos-Saratoga Union high school districts to recruit adults with disabilities to help. They are paid by the school districts for their time.

Making machine-made embroidery products is a very visual process that can be broken up into smaller tasks, which is perfect for people who have special needs, Meng said. Depending on their ability, the helpers are trained to perform a variety of jobs, including loading embroidery hoops into machines, packaging orders and speaking to customers. The opportunity not only provides the adults with technical experience, but also social ones.

“We don’t isolate them,” Meng said. “If a customer comes in, we let them talk to customers and help them. Here we try to create a good and supportive working environment.”

Intern Maya Rumale found out about Turtleworks through her special education program at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino. Since October 2023, the senior, who has special needs, has been coming into the office twice a week to clean up supplies, cut thread backings off of finished pieces and load embroidery hoops.

“It’s the kind of job where I don’t realize time is passing,” the 17-year-old said recently inside the office. “I go to work and I’m like, oh, two hours are done already?”

Rumale said she appreciates working in a space that supports people with special needs.

“I don’t know how many other places do that,” she said. “I feel like people with special needs need spaces that are pretty much solely for them, and committed to supporting them.”

Her response is exactly what Meng hoped for when she set out to establish the shop.

A former Silicon Valley engineer, Meng left her day job in 2009 to care for her two children, one of whom is autistic. She started volunteering with Friends of Children with Special Needs (FCSN), a Fremont nonprofit that helps individuals with special needs and their families.

Meng developed a passion for creating life and job skills training opportunities. She created work programs for FCSN high school and postsecondary students, including operations where students could make soaps and repurpose recycled legos to sell them to community members.

She decided to take her ideas outside of the nonprofit world and opened the Turtleworks office in 2020, right before Santa Clara County’s pandemic shelter-in place orders took effect.

“I didn’t have embroidery experience,” Meng said. “After we opened, there was the pandemic, and there was nobody who could help me or teach me.”

After searching online for instructions, Meng eventually got the hang of using the machines and began providing online and onsite training sessions to the Turtleworks crew. They completed 400 orders in 2023, and have completed 180 so far this year. Winter holiday times are usually the busiest times for custom orders, according to Meng, but Mother’s Day and graduation season are also popular.

For the past two years Kristi Saso, president of the San Jose-based commercial maintenance company Pro-Sweep, has used Turtleworks to embroider her company’s logo onto different caps, shirts and jackets.

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Saso admires how Meng is creating work opportunities for young adults with special needs, an age group that is often overlooked by society.

“The fact that she is so patient and allows them to learn skills that will benefit them throughout their entire life,” Saso said, “it’s unbelievably generous to our community and so important.”

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