Kickstarting Employment for People with Disabilities

March 22, 2018 | Erez Cohen

When my Social Work intern, Drew McNamara, shared with me that he would like to work on a personal project, I was a little concerned. Drew had been interning with us at Hillel for only a month. But as he shared with me his vision to help people with disabilities find gainful employment, I was hooked. Only 17% of all people with disabilities are employed, meaning there are more than 45 million individuals that are not. Creative Souls was made to change that. Having worked with people with disabilities for nearly a full decade, Drew knew he wanted to combine his long-held love for helping these individuals with his recently discovered passion for social entrepreneurship.

The idea was very straight forward. Work with people with disabilities to paint on canvas shoes and then sell these shoes. The artists will get paid based on the sales. This idea, I thought, plays directly into Hillel’s vision of empowering students to do right with the world. And so – we started the program small, by employing seven artists with disabilities to hand paint canvass shoes. The shoes were displayed at the Boneyard Arts Festival last year at a special reception at the Cohen Center for Jewish Life. The shoes were sold at the event and later on the Creative Souls website (

Two challenges rose from this experience – the offering of shoes were limited to the specific design at a specific size; and every pair of shoes took close to an hour to make. Drew went back to the drawing board. He found a specific printer that can print designs by the artists, giving them royalties for each shoe sold. That way he can custom print shoes and receive designs from thousands of artists. On March 13, he launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $50,000 that would provide the necessary funding to cost-effectively produce the goods and pay the artists for their designs.

At its core, the company seeks to empower people with disabilities to earn an income. It provides a learning experience where inclusion is not an afterthought; it is part of the foundation. Each artist has the opportunity to show his or her unique personality through the artwork they create, which is sold directly to consumers.


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Erez Cohen is the Executive Director of Hillel at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign since 2013. Previously, Erez working in as a project manager in East Africa and fundraiser for the Jaffa Institute in Israel. Erez has a MA in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and he is an adjunct lecturer at the University of Illinois School of Social Work.

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