Community connections lead to enhanced PawsAbilities

Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019

PawsAbilities stand up tent

PawsAbilities sells handmade peanut butter-based pet treats, bandanas, hats, T-shirts and other products made by clients using Inclusion Connection's services. | Photo courtesy of PawsAbilities.


OLATHE — An ongoing partnership with Kansas State University, Inclusion Connections and PawsAbilities is helping cook up a new pet treat formulation and increase services to residents in Greater Kansas City who have developmental disabilities.

PawsAbilities is the retail business for Inclusion Connections, an Olathe-based nonprofit that provides an array of services to help individuals who have developmental disabilities, such as Down syndrome or autism, so they can be more independent. Services include providing opportunities to participate in community activities, developing and supporting employment opportunities and creating options for independent living.

PawsAbilities sells handmade peanut butter-based pet treats, bandanas, hats, T-shirts and other products made by clients using Inclusion Connection's services. Sales help support the organization's services and operations. Producing the pet treats and products teaches clients skills and techniques that translate to retail and production jobs in the community.

"Inclusion Connections provides a place for participants to belong, grow and succeed," said Debbie Horn, executive director of Inclusion Connections. "Community partnerships like this are essential for our mission and our experience with K-State's Olathe campus has gone beyond our expectations and helped us in many facets of our organization."

Earlier this year, a PawsAbilities worker and supervisor came to K-State's Olathe campus to work on a pumpkin-centric pet treat in the campus' research and development kitchen.

"Pumpkin is very trendy in the pet food industry," said Bryan Severns, food programs and services manager who leads the pet food program at the Olathe campus. "It's inexpensive; has a great shelf life; is filled with fiber, vitamins and other healthy ingredients; and is easy to donate. This made it a good addition to expand their product line."

Severns and Tammy Racey, kitchen assistant, worked with the PawsAbilities team on formulations for biscuit treats made with a cookie cutter. Because pumpkin has more moisture than peanut butter, the team also worked on how best to remove the moisture so that the treats could be shelf stable once they were done. The finalized production techniques were taken back to PawsAbilities to be refined and taught.

Bryan Severns helps formulate pumpkin-based pet treats with PawsAbilities staff.

Bryan Severns works with a team from PawsAbilities on pumpkin-based pet treats. | Photo courtesy of PawsAbilities.


The pumpkin treat was part of a larger project with PawsAbilities. Earlier this year, Leadership Olathe participants chose Inclusion Connections and PawsAbilities as their service recipients. Nate Scherman, IT manager at the Olathe campus, was part of the 2019 Leadership Olathe class.

Scherman and his subcommittee focused on PawsAbilities' distribution and wholesaling efforts. This included outfitting PawsAbilities with a new pop-up tent and other display enhancements that boosted the visual presence of the business' event booth so that more people would visit the booth to purchase products and learn about the organization.

A hand truck was provided so that the PawsAbilities team could move equipment and products from their vehicle to their display location more easily.

In addition to formulating a pumpkin treat with Severns and Racey, Scherman also connected the PawsAbilities team with Jeff Tucker, executive director of the Technology Development at K-State's Manhattan campus, who presented PawsAbilities with an option to streamline pet treat production but keep it engaging for the clients who make the treats.

"Deb and her team have a clear vision of how they want to grow and enhance Inclusion Connections and PawsAbilities, but they are limited on the amount of time and resources to progress as quickly as they would like," Scherman said. "Partnering with them through Leadership Olathe and making a positive impact on their commendable and important endeavor was a moving experience for me and my classmates."

K-State Olathe's relationship with Inclusion Connections dates back to six years when Dan Richardson, the campus' first dean and CEO, and Terri Bogina, executive assistant, were introduced to Inclusion Connections through the Olathe Chamber of Commerce.

Richardson and Bogina later connected Inclusion Connections to Severns because of his food safety and pet treat expertise. When Inclusion Connections relocated to the Crossroads Shopping Center, it tapped Severns for guidance on how to remodel its kitchen space for pet treat production and where to find used industrial kitchen equipment.

Since then, Severns has periodically worked with the PawsAbilities team on various projects. One was a collaboration with WATT Global Media and Bureau Veritas, an international certification agency that has a pet food testing laboratory at the Olathe campus, that brought PawsAbilities workers to the Petfood Innovation Workshop — an annual event devoted to pet food and pet treat manufacturing. Workers were given badges to the event so they could meet with other pet treat manufacturers, walk the floor space and participate in a dog biscuit making workshop.

Bureau Veritas is currently in the process of hiring two PawsAbilities participants to work in their lab.

"It's been really easy and rewarding working with Inclusion Connections and PawsAbilities," Severns said. "They're a fun group to work with and it's a blast seeing the clients make connections."

To learn more about PawsAbilities, visit their website at