Barrington business helps children with special needs find ‘Shining Abilities’
Siblings Andrea Lemke (right to left), Dan Schwab and Kristin Blomquist launched "Shining Abilities" to provide toys for children with autism. | Brian O'Mahoney~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 8, 2013 6:06AM
Three siblings who grew up in Barrington launched an Internet-based business last summer that caters to children with autism and the adults who work with them.
Andrea Lemke explained that she helped start Shining Abilities after noticing a lack of toys and products designed specifically for children with special needs.
“I spent time teaching in the public schools,” said Lemke, who serves as president of the company. “I saw a need for a lot of products that were not available.”
It didn’t take long for Lemke to bring her siblings on board. Her brother, Kristin Blomquist, has a business background, and Daniel Schwab, their brother, brings experience in the use of technology. Blomquist and Schwab both now live in Lake Zurich.
“We all work really well together and we all have different skill sets, so we decided to put our skills together,” said Schwab, who serves as chief operating officer.
The website, www.shiningabilities.com, offers more than 120 products, a mix of their own line and items they’ve purchased from other companies.
“It takes a lot of knowledge to know exactly what to buy for them,” said Schwab. “As we continue to grow, we’re developing more products.”
Shining Abilities sells toys and books that strongly incorporate one’s senses.
“Children with autism are visual learners,” said Lemke, who now lives in Chicago. “So all our materials are visually-based.”
Lemke reported that some of their top selling items are the four “I See” books, which include “I See Things That Go” and “I See things on a Farm.” She said both help a child identify objects.
Also popular, Lemke noted, are the sensory play bags, which came as a result of her interactions with parents who said they struggled to keep their children with autism calm in places like the car, grocery store or at a restaurant.
“These bags are meant to take with you so the children stay regulated and engaged in those difficult times,” she said.
Blomquist, who serves as CEO for Shining Abilities, highlighted the “Joey Says” action cards, which help kids identify colors, numbers and sentence structure.
“It hits numerous developmental levels,” she said
Blomquist said the need for toys geared toward children with autism is growing, in line with the growing population of children with special needs. Now, she said, it is estimated that one in every 88 children has autism.
“It wasn’t that long ago that it was one in 120,” she said. “I’ve always enjoyed business, but this is the first time I’ve been involved in something and really felt like I’m making a difference.”
Lemke, a special education teacher who works with families on a daily basis, said the first step to developing a product is to determine what skill and skill level to focus.
“We aim to design our products so they can be appropriate for a wide range of children,” she said.
Lemke added that part of the business also involves staying in touch with groups like Autism Speaks and other research and advocacy organizations. That, she said, helps the company develop the best products to build cognitive, language and social skills.
“We try to be a one-stop website,” she said.