Five years ago in Northern California, one visit to his mother and a drawing displayed on her fridge was all it took to spawn the idea for the Phoenix-based T-shirts company Paper Clouds Apparel (PCA).
“(She) had a drawing on her fridge that really caught my eye,” says Robert Thornton, founder of PCA. “She told me a little girl on her route would draw the whole ride to school and would often give them to her. The drawing had me mesmerized. I woke up the next morning with the idea for Paper Clouds Apparel.” And after saving money for two years, Thornton started PCA and officially became a business in December 2009.
However, Paper Clouds Apparel (PCA) isn’t your typical clothing company. It raises money for schools, habilitation centers and learning centers that work with special needs individuals. And, it just launched its new website this week with a brand new line of merchandise created by individuals with special needs. Every two weeks, PCA teams up with a different special needs school/organization. First on the list, from January 7 through January 21, is the Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD). Here’s a list of some of PCA’s upcoming projects:
- Jan. 21 – Feb. 4: International Down Syndrome Coalition (IDSC)
- Feb. 4 – Feb. 18: Art of Autism
- Feb. 18 – March 4: Easter Seals Crossroads
- March 4 – March 18: A Total Approach
- March 18 – April 1: Autism Speaks
Q&A with Robert Thornton of PCA:
Scottsdale Living (SL): On PCA’s website, it states that the long-term goal is to raise money for at least one school, learning center and habilitation center in every state. For how many states so far has PCA raised money?
Thornton: PCA currently has 16 special needs schools and organizations as members of our family. Teaming up first with an amazing organization like the Center For Autism and Related Disorders (CARD) on our new website really expands our reach to a new level. They have satellite centers in 16 states and one in New Zealand and another in Australia.
We also have a future project in which we are teaming up with Autism Speaks, which is in every state and worldwide!
SL: How much has been raised for schools/organizations since PCA’s inception?
Thornton: We don’t like to give out actual amounts for our past projects, but we do have a new ticker on our website that will show how much has been raised for the current project and will also have a running yearly total.
I will say that Margaret Stephens-Reed, head of fundraising for VALLEYLIFE, made the comment that without the money we have raised for VALLEYLIFE, they wouldn’t even have an art program!
SL: How are the schools/organizations chosen?
Thornton: We reach out to special needs schools and organizations we love on our own, describe what Paper Clouds Apparel is all about and ask if they are interested. Most special needs schools and organizations rely on government funding and private donations to keep operating. The government has slashed the total they give out dramatically the past three years. VALLEYLIFE, for instance, has seen their government funding cut by almost 20 percent over the past three years. So we want to fill this void and give these amazing special needs schools and organizations the funds they need to give all these amazing individuals the tools they need to thrive.
SL: Could you talk about how the products are eco-friendly and sensory-friendly?
Thornton: We use bamboo for our shirts, which is such a better fabric than cotton.
- The typical cotton shirt requires 700 gallons from planting to finished shirt ― and that’s for ONE shirt! Bamboo shirts require around 34 gallons in comparison.
- Cotton shirts require 1/4 pound of chemicals and pesticides, while a bamboo shirt requires none of these nasty products.
- Plus, after the cotton is harvested, you have to fill up the air with exhaust and chemicals from tilling the land. Bamboo roots continually sprout new shoots, so you never have to till the land.
- Bamboo fabric also feels like a cross between silk and cashmere ― super soft to the skin.
- Bamboo fabric offers comfort, is highly absorbent, hypoallergenic, has wicking abilities, more breathable than cotton and a natural sheen. That makes it perfect for a large number of individuals with autism who have sensory issues.
SL: What are PCA’s goals for 2013?
Thornton: Paper Clouds Apparel just wants to continue growing. We want to reach as many people as we can and inform them of what we are doing.
Individuals with special needs are all too often made to feel like they lack the ability to contribute to society. We want to show the masses the amazing talents they posses. By doing this, we want to bring hope and raise the self-esteem of a portion of the population that can be made to feel less than others.
Paper Clouds Apparel wants to spread awareness and acceptance of all people. PCA is also hiring individuals with special needs to package our shirts. Steady employment is very hard to find for this part of the population. Ninety-three percent of all individuals of working age that have special needs are unemployed. We hope to sell as many shirts as possible and keep increasing our workforce. Providing a way for someone to make a living is such a huge part of what we are about.
SL: Could you describe one moment when you knew you were touching lives with PCA?
Thornton: I have been really moved by emails I have received from parents of children with special needs that belong to a school or organization PCA is teaming up with. The emails have thanked me for this project, parents telling me this project has completely changed the dynamic in their home. Their child in now inspired and excited to know that people appreciate and want to buy something they have created. I was completely unprepared to receive something like this. Every time I get one of these emails, it really hits me emotionally. That has been the most rewarding development and has made the five years struggling to get to this point completely worth it.