Jojomama is a Singaporean social enterprise founded by working mother Phoebe, and her son Jonah, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Together, they create beautiful handmade resin products with pressed flowers (e.g. coasters, keychains, chopstick rests), which make unique and meaningful gifts.
Jojomama also runs workshops to train persons with special needs or disabilities. With these skills, trainees have the opportunity to be employed at Jojomama, allowing them to earn a sustainable income.
Read on for an insight into the business and learn more about ASD!
Can you share Jonah’s story?
When Jonah was 18 months old, we noticed his progress was not quite right. Jonah’s brother, who is four years older, was doing a lot more things at 18th months. At 3-4 years old, he was diagnosed with autism.
My husband and I read around and decided to try a diet route. We found that eliminating gluten and casein worked for him. When his eczema was under control, he was able to benefit from Occupational Therapy (OT) and Speech Therapy (ST), and began to regulate his emotions better.
There’s no such thing as higher education for special needs kids in Singapore. So, when Jonah turned 18, he was offered a place in a sheltered workshop, which provides employment to persons with disabilities. However, he just had no understanding of the 9 to 5 schedule and we had to take him out.
Jonah’s story is quite typical of a special needs kid, where parents need patience to figure out what’s happening. ASD is especially challenging as each person is different and there is no known cause or cure.
What has it been like for Jonah’s older brother?
It is very tough. When they were growing up, the older brother was very resentful, because family activities, like going to a restaurant or going on vacation, would sometimes get disrupted because the brother was having a meltdown.
We always protected the little one, saying that he doesn’t understand and we need more tolerance. That caused a greater divide between them. At one point, I believe, he was even ashamed to be out with the brother because he felt that Jonah didn’t behave in public.
Thankfully, my older son, now 24, has begun to love his brother so much. Jonah is his comfort when he’s stressed. My older son brings Jonah out and teaches him things; he tells us he will care for Jonah even when we are not around.
My older son once said, “I asked for a brother and now I’m all alone”. Nowadays he says, “Jonah is the peacemaker in the house”, because Jonah is sensitive to loud noises and gives us a tap on our shoulder if we ever raise our voices at one another.
What is “a day in the life” like for you as a caregiver and as an entrepreneur?
Messy, but it’s important to have a routine. My husband exercises with Jonah in the morning and then we have breakfast together. Then, I’ll run through Jonah’s schedule for the day with my helper, if therapists are coming in, if he’s going to be on his computer, or if he’s following me to the workshop. When we come back from work, we will spend time chatting and snuggling!
Like any working parent, if anything happens out of the norm during the day, a lot of adjustments will have to be made.
Jojomama started out in early 2020, right in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. What motivated you and Jonah to start a business?
The start of the pandemic coincided with when Jonah graduated from special school and the sheltered workshop did not suit him.
Working from home gave us the chance to explore various crafts, like painting and beads. When we tried resin, I realised the process to eradicate bubbles requires slow and consistent stirring, and that’s perfect for him!
So I thought, this is something he can sell for income and is a model that might actually work for the community. That’s how Jojomama was started.
You are a practising interior architect who runs her own firm. Can you describe how your background in architecture and design has contributed to the products and workshops?
My background helps us to consistently create new products that are aesthetically pleasing yet functional. Some ASD children are creative, but most of them get stressed when required to be creative. I’m happy to take on that role and put together colour palettes and combinations of flowers and leaves for the templates.
The step-by-step kits we develop for our workshops make it very easy for the kids to copy from a template, but because flowers are part of nature, no two pieces come out the same!
One of the greatest worries for parents of kids with autism is how they will be able to live independently. What tips do you have for other parents for coping with these worries?
I think the most important thing for parents is that your child spends time meaningfully. Establish a routine that allocates 3-4 hours a day to crafts or sport, then think about whether it can bring income.
I want to encourage parents or caregivers to focus on this while you are still healthy. Jonah works on resin three days a week. He may not be able to do the full process yet, but I think in 2-3 years time, he will be. By then, hopefully, we can leave the business to run on its own.
How does technology help you and your son and where do you see it going in the future?
Right now, there are a lot of apps that help them express themselves. In the past, for ASD non-verbal, we used PECS – Picture Exchange Communication System. This is where cards are used to help them communicate what they want or where they want to go. Now, with the app, it is great because, since everyone is on their device, they can be perceived as “normal” in society!
There are also a lot of videos and things they can learn from the internet. There are some ASD persons that can copy actions, dance, or even cook just by watching step-by-step guides online. I think technology has really opened up a lot of possibilities.
What is the Jojomama community like? Could you share a memorable story?
One is good at copying the flower designs, my son is very good at stirring the bubbles, others are very meticulous. They work well together to complete a final product!
A struggle would be sometimes they are not consistent in coming. They have meltdowns or their caregiver is unavailable. Sometimes they might also space out in the middle of the session. There are hiccups but that’s why Jojomama exists, to provide alternatives to 9-5 schedules.
What role do you feel organisations and corporations play in supporting Jojomama and the PWD community?
Many ways, for sure.
When corporations purchase products from us, they contribute directly to our beneficiaries’ income. And, possibly even more impactful, the satisfaction and sense of being appreciated that special needs persons and PWDs (persons with disabilities) need.
For example, even though Jonah is non-verbal, when friends or clients come and say thank you, you can see the beam in his eyes. Bulk orders can roll them on for months. It truly helps.
Another way corporations can be involved is to fund training courses or traineeship employment. Currently, we have Temasek Trust-CDC (which we are so grateful for) funding our training courses for year 2022.
We are looking for more corporations to come alongside us on this journey to give work to our differently abled artisans.
What is in store for Jojomama?
I want Jojomama to be a place persons with special needs or disabilities can learn and make sustainable income in a flexible work environment.
We look forward to creating new products, and, in the long term, hope to propel JOJOMAMA into the international art scene by collaborating with hotels and corporations to do installation art for the public space.
Written by Sheena Hong