Dubuque business started by autistic man now helping others with special needs

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DUBUQUE, Iowa (KCRG) -- A Dubuque man started a business to gain independence and now he's trying to help others do the same.

Daniel Toops (far left) tears apart egg cartons for his business, JT Firestarters, on Tuesday, April 16, 2019. (Allison Wong, KCRG-TV9)

Daniel Toops has autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder. He's non-verbal and communicates through pictures and gestures. Daniel's mom, Katherine Toops said, "it was very difficult to find a job that would fit his needs." So she started Daniel his own business call Just Toops L.L.C. Through that business, Daniel creates JT Firestarters.

Daniel creates the product by hand out of egg cartons, dryer lint, shredded paper, and wax. They're sold in packs of 10 and in more than 100 stores across the midwest. Daniel's job coach, Chris Weaver, is there to help him each day.

"My job as a job coach is to keep him focused and prompted to be able to make his firestarters," Weaver said.

Before Daniel begins his tasks, he needs to scope out his workspace. He looks out the window and checks out his supplies. However, he's also started working with others. Daniel is inviting students in the Dubuque Community School District to join his business to learn job skills and gain independence, just like him.

Hempstead High School special education teacher Kevin Kapparos has brought his students to Daniel's workplace. He says he's always looking for ways to get his students real-life experience.

"The goal is to get us out in the community as much as possible and as realistic as possible," Kapparos said. "It's to find as much independence in those areas of living, learning and working, especially in the area of working."

Katherin says the ultimate vision is to have a building full of small businesses to help people with special needs.

"The future goal is to have a larger building where there would be different businesses and students coming in to do job training," she said.

While they aren't quite there yet, Daniel is on his way.

"We have high hopes of we're gonna make it big," Katherine said.