Jack Nielson of Salt Lake City always wanted a job, but nobody would give him a chance because of his disabilities. Tom Landis, a businessman from Dallas, always wanted to help people like Jack after growing up with a mom who had polio.
Now together the two are raising awareness through Howdy Homemade Ice Cream, a unique Texas-based company started by Landis, 48, to give people with intellectual and developmental disabilities a chance to earn a living and gain valuable life experiences they were often denied before.
Jack, 21, who is developmentally disabled, now spends several hours a day scooping ice cream into cups, washing dishes, emptying garbage cans and spreading smiles at a Howdy Homemade franchise opened by his parents, Chris and Heidi Nielson, last summer in Salt Lake City’s Sugarhouse neighborhood.
Although he doesn’t speak, “it’s clear that he loves his job and he loves Tom,” Heidi, 42, tells PEOPLE. “As a mother of a child with special needs, it was easy for me to want to sacrifice my time and effort in opening a Howdy store. What’s amazing to me is that Tom — who doesn’t have a child with special needs — would do the same.”
Landis, who also operates a chain of Texadelphia cheesesteak sandwich shops, decided to open an ice cream shop in Dallas two years ago (the Utah store is his first franchise), because he had worked with several disabled people in his restaurants and knew they were hardworking and reliable employees.
“I’ve seen them succeed beyond what people expected they’d be able to,” he tells PEOPLE, “and probably the best thing is that a job other people might not consider important is a life-changer for them.”
“If nobody will hire you and you have nothing to do all day, then you end up watching TV all the time,” he says, “and that’s a shame. We need to get over some of these social stigmas about people with special needs. They have more to offer than people realize.”
Landis, whose mother, Sunni, had polio “but never complained about anything,” decided when he went into the restaurant business that he would hire as many disabled people as possible.
“We have a huge restaurant industry in Dallas and we have a huge turnover and customer service problem,” he says, “and yet, very few places are hiring adults with special needs, even though we have more than 240,000 such people in north Texas alone. There are too many qualified people who are not being given a chance. It’s my aim to change that.”
Two years ago, when he opened Howdy Homemade Ice Cream, he quickly filled his roster with employees with special needs (14 out of 16), with a goal of one day opening additional franchises.
“So many of my employees have been overlooked and underestimated their entire lives,” he tells PEOPLE, “and that’s unacceptable. I wish that I could hire them all.”
One of those employees, Annemarie Carrigan, 20, who has Down syndrome, worked her way up through an internship and is now running the cash register at Howdy Homemade.
“Annemarie just needed a place to start, and without Tom, we might still be looking,” says her father, Pat Carrigan, 59. “He understands that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are individuals with their own strengths and weaknesses. Like all of us, they just need to find their niche.”
“Tom is motivated by a true love of his fellow man,” adds Chris Nielson, 52, who now delights in watching his son, Jack, work at the family’s Howdy Homemade store in Salt Lake City. “He puts people first and is a proponent of the underdog — a rarity in today’s business world.”
Landis, who dreams of putting one of his ice cream shops in every state, says he can’t imagine doing business any other way.
“When somebody is put into a loving environment where they are socially accepted, they will flourish and grow,” he says, “and that benefits everyone. It might take longer to train somebody with a disability, but the payback is incredible. My employees are friendly and loyal and we have a zero turnover rate. When they’re given a chance, everybody wins.”