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National Disability Employment Awareness Month 2009

Picture of "Banana Belt Kelly" Kelly Yarnes picking farm produce.
“Banana Belt Kelly”

Story by Marcia Farrell, Employment Services Team, Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, State of Washington Department of Social and Health Services

Kelly Yarnes had a vision and a dream of being self employed. For many years, she wanted to own and operate her own gift shop where she could sell handmade lavender sachets, handmade greeting cards, garden décor and other gift items. But Kelly faced formidable odds against her dream becoming a reality because of a disability.

Since birth, Kelly has had a seizure disorder that affects learning. She was in special education classes throughout school and struggled with reading, writing and math. When under stress or exceptionally tired, Kelly experienced severe seizures and, as a result, many activities were off limits. However, Kelly has never let obstacles get in her way. She was a Gold Medalist in the 1988 International Special Olympics held in Germany, where she represented the United States and had the distinguished honor of lighting the Special Olympics flame.

Since 1996, Kelly has been known in Sequim, Washington, as “The Lavender Lady.” Every third weekend in July during the annual Lavender Festival, Kelly greets guests at the Olympic Lavender Farm wearing a Victorian dress and fancy, broad-brimmed hat. Her long auburn hair is tied off with bright ribbons. Kelly’s picture appears on postcards, posters and blankets throughout the area. She has also volunteered many weekends at the Sequim Open Aire Market helping others sell lavender products — always dressed in her Victorian costumes.

For years, Kelly had been baking and selling banana bread and fresh eggs gathered on the family farm she cared for. She had a roadside stand and usually sold out of her products within the hour. Neighbors and passersby came knocking on her front door to see if she had more of her delicious homemade Banana Bread to sell.

In spite of her success, Kelly wanted more. She had worked in fast food restaurants, pizza parlors, was a dining room attendant and a janitor — all viable and worthy occupations. Yet she still dreamed of owning her own shop. You might wonder “how could a woman with severe learning disabilities, an IQ of 54, and a seizure disorder even imagine having her own store, let alone taking care of all that goes along with self employment?” Read on.

When Kelly lost her job as a pizza prep worker in December 2006, she nearly gave up on employment altogether. Then, Kelly, along with her mother, Laurie, and her vocational rehabilitation (VR) counselor started brainstorming and Kelly shared her long-standing employment goal with her counselor. “My dream job would be to meet and greet people at a bed and breakfast, make lavender sachets, and sell them along with other gifts or garden décor in a little store at my house”.

From this tiny entrepreneurial concept, Banana Belt Kelly evolved. Kelly and her VR counselor worked together to develop a self employment plan while Kelly continued to stockpile handmade sachets, her own greeting cards, antiques and collectibles by frequenting “going out of business” sales. People who met and heard of Kelly’s vision and dream were constantly contributing to her collection.

In July 2009, two years after that first brainstorming meeting, Kelly saw her dream fulfilled when Banana Belt Kelly officially opened its doors. Kelly immediately started giving back to her community by collecting small donations at the sales counter for the Epilepsy Foundation. While Banana Belt Kelly is a destination in itself, it is not the end of Kelly’s dream but only the beginning. Her story illustrates beautifully the spirit and intent of the public VR program – to deliver services and expertise that level the playing field and enable individuals with disabilities to pursue and achieve employment that is meaningful and fulfilling. Kelly Yarnes is a testament to the power of the human spirit to keep a dream alive no matter what.

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The contents of this document do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

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Last Modified: 10/21/2009