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How One Small Business Is Providing Career Opportunities For People With Differing Abilities

Hive of the Ozarks is helping to make Willard, Missouri more nurturing.

by Kelsey Lawrence and BDG Studios

“Different abilities, same opportunities” is the slogan of Hive of the Ozarks, a nonprofit cafe in Willard, Missouri that’s changing the lives of residents in this town of just over 6,000.

The cafe, founded by former teacher Melissa Skaggs, is staffed by students with differing abilities who work alongside students who do not have disabilities. The aim is simple: build functional life and job skills that help students network in the community.

Skaggs worked in education for 30 years before opening The Hive in March 2021. Throughout her career, she noticed there wasn’t a space for students with differing abilities to hone the skills other students were able to develop through the usual after-school jobs and internships. Hoping someone else would start a similar concept, she kept teaching and talking with others about the idea.

Inspired by cafes with similar concepts, Skaggs decided to take the plunge and open The Hive in her hometown of Willard where she knew the nonprofit would be supported. “I had some concern about starting a business in Willard,” Skaggs says, noting a low survival rate for small businesses in the area. “But this is a town that supports its residents.”

Melissa Skaggs and staff at Hive of the Ozarks. Image courtesy of Melissa Skaggs.

The Hive takes after its namesake. Just as a beehive is a naturally resilient, communal organism, Skaggs’s cafe is a true hive for the town around it — art classes and community meetups happen alongside chats over coffee and sandwiches. She hopes to offer wellness classes in the near future.

So far, the nonprofit cafe has raised $5,000 from community donors, but fundraising was hampered by the pandemic. Fortunately for Hive of the Ozarks, there are other organizations who are looking out for small businesses. On May 31, 2022, Intuit QuickBooks and Mailchimp – two small business platforms focused on driving small business success – introduced a new day of recognition for small businesses everywhere: Small Business Hero Day. As part of their efforts, QuickBooks and Mailchimp awarded three small businesses across the U.S. with $20,000 each, for their heroic efforts that have either impacted an individual or community. As one of three QuickBooks and Mailchimp Small Business Hero Day winners, it is safe to say that possibilities are growing for Hive of the Ozarks. “It means everything to me,” Skaggs says. “I didn’t see this coming and almost didn’t believe it when I learned.”

With the award money, she hopes to expand the cafe’s hours, add outdoor seating and menu items, dependent on feedback from her board and the community.

The Hive’s model focuses on teaching workers job skills and customer service skills. The nonprofit’s 16 employees work a maximum of 500 hours, equipping them with the skills and confidence to move onto new job opportunities. Around the kitchen are clipboards with helpful guides to help hone job skills, including tasks to work on when there aren't any customers. The most rewarding part of Skaggs’s business has been seeing the impact on her employees’ lives beyond their job. Working at The Hive has encouraged its workers to become more independent in other aspects of their lives, going on to achieve things such as getting their driver’s licenses.

Flexibility, patience, and serving as a role model to her employees are the qualities Skaggs attributes to being a successful small business owner. Her background as a teacher helps her be a “cheerleader and a coach and a counselor all in one.”

Melissa Skaggs and company at Hive of the Ozarks. Image courtesy of Melissa Skaggs.

For Skaggs, Willard isn’t just the location of her business. It’s also the town she was born and raised in, had a career in, and made friends in. Many of the community members whom she shared her dream with now help with The Hive or are on its board. Opening a nonprofit with a storefront has also been a way to give back to her community. The Hive is also giving back beyond its town center — the business is fully green, producing zero waste and donating food scraps to a local farmer to feed animals.

“There’s always so much to do with paperwork and the back-office on top of everything else,” Skaggs says. “Seeing the positive impact the Hive has on my employees and our entire community, though, is so rewarding.”