KATY, Texas (AP) — Nolan Stilwell steps into his black chef's jacket. He's moving slowly, thoughtfully. His father, Randy Stilwell, helps with the sleeves and buttons. Normally Nolan would don a gauzy white cap to work in the kitchen, but today he has a show to put on. He goes instead with a snug black hat emblazoned with the words "The Jam Man" across the front, and a big smile.
The 24-year-old is the man behind Katy's Sweet Heat Jam Co. According to Nolan, the journey to the prep room in the Houston Food Bank arranging meatballs on small white plates for seven hungry judges as part of H-E-B's Quest for Texas Best competition is simple: "I love making jam."
The shot at the grand prize — $25,000, to be awarded this week — has him nervous. He's made it to the third round with 25 other finalists. But he's faced tougher odds.
Nolan has Down syndrome, a lifelong condition that makes it difficult for many of those affected to find employment and independence after high school.
"It's kind of like they get cut off," said Christine Stilwell, Nolan's mother and the founder of Sweet Heat Jam. "They get cut off from employment and from being with peers, and that in itself has its own set of problems."
That was the impetus behind her launch of the company in 2011. She wanted to give Nolan a place to be productive and to use his culinary skills, honed over years in the kitchen of their Katy home.
As the company grew, moving into its own commercial kitchen in 2013, it was able to hire another full-time employee, Melissa Correa, who also has Down syndrome. The kitchen even started an internship program to give more young adults with special needs a chance to work in a kitchen designed with them in mind.
Roughly one in 700 babies born in this country has one of the three types of Down syndrome, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Roughly half of the children born with the genetic, chromosomal disorder suffer from heart defects. The condition has a range of symptoms from physical to mental, but the severity varies widely.
Roughly 250,000 Americans now live with Down syndrome, and outcomes are dramatically different from what they were just a generation ago, according to Dr. Kathryn Klish Ostermaier, director of the Down syndrome clinic at Texas Children's Hospital and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine.
Individuals with the condition who once lived only to their 20s are now living into their 60s. Ostermaier credits the greater life expectancy to better surgical techniques and increased understanding of some of the complications that can accompany the condition.
For her patients, that also means better support services for adults with Down syndrome, including more community college courses and job-coaching opportunities.
"As a country and as a local community, things are growing and evolving," Ostermaier told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1kVbD93 ).
Familiar with many of the area programs, she said Katy schools, which Nolan attended, are known for having a fairly inclusive approach. "Katy does a nice job," she said. "I think they're moving toward allowing more inclusion, which is kind of what most parents are looking for."
But the transition out of high school is still a large question mark for many. "That's a hard period for families," Ostermaier said.
Early on, Nolan showed a talent for gardening and cooking.
"Emeril was one of his favorite people to watch on television," she said, referencing the New Orleans chef with his own cooking show, "throwing his towel over his shoulder, saying 'Bam!'?"
It wasn't long before Nolan began working alongside his mother in the kitchen.
Although Katy High School didn't have a culinary arts program for students with special needs, he was able to keep developing his interest through its life skills program.
"He was given the opportunity to prep and be the sous chef in the classroom," Stilwell said. In his free time, he'd flip through the pages of "Every Day with Rachel Ray" or Food Network magazines.
But after he graduated, Nolan's opportunities to continue were limited, according to his mother. "There was no kitchen that would hire someone with special needs," she said. "They thought it was too much of an insurance risk."
When Sweet Heat started, the company rented space in a larger commercial kitchen. But over time the pace and the cost became a little too prohibitive. "Our special needs adults work at a wonderful pace," Stilwell said. "But it's a little bit slower."
"It's quality work and I never wanted to rush anybody."
So when the Grand Lakes Presbyterian Church in Katy donated its kitchen to the cause, it was a perfect fit.
"We believe in ministry per-square-foot, per-hour," said Dean Pogue, the church's pastor. "So when Sweet Heat came to us, we developed a ministry partnership."
Pogue said he hopes the kitchen can become the center for a variety of vocational programs for young adults with special needs.
It was a need he felt called to meet after a parent in his church came to him with concerns for the future.
Since the company moved in, Pogue has gotten to know both Nolan and Melissa. "It's just a delight having them here," he said, "and we're at the beginning of something here."
He used to get frustrated walking by the quiet kitchen. Now, he said, it's vibrant.
With the dedicated space, the company was able to move from selling jars at farmers markets and festivals, to making entire cases of the stuff for local stores across town.
But more rewarding than that, said Stilwell, has been watching her own son's transformation. "His self-confidence, his independence have really moved forward and we're just very happy to see that," she said.
Steps that used to require a watchful eye from Stilwell are now managed in a matter of minutes. "I just stand there in awe, like, 'Let me get out of your way,'?" said Stilwell. She remembers one day, in particular, when both Nolan and Melissa began working one-on-one with the interns, walking them through the tasks that she once showed them how to do. "It's just wonderful to see now the outcome of those years of education," she said. When they found out they had been selected as one of 25 finalists for the H-E-B competition meant to highlight state-made goods, Stilwell decided to shut the kitchen down to let the workers prepare for their time in the spotlight.
"He is very excited," Stilwell said of her son. "He says, 'I make the jam because it's from my heart and I like sharing my jam with other people.'?"
The vision behind the jam
The Sweet Heat team presented three different dishes to the H-E-B judges this week, featuring their holiday jam with cranberry and citrus, a drunken pepper flavor with malted wine and pomegranate juice, and the versatile apricot jalapeno concoction that is Nolan's personal favorite. In fact, he started the day with a spoonful of it on some vanilla ice cream.
But the company wants to also show the San Antonio-based grocery chain the vision behind the jam. "It's not just about Nolan anymore," Christine Stilwell said. "It's about this mission."
If Sweet Heat wins, the money will go toward hiring even more hands in the kitchen, giving more adults with special needs a chance to work among their peers.
Said Stilwell, "There have been so many families that have written to us and said this gives them hope for their son or daughter's future."
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com