Learning that your child was left out of recess would tug at the heartstrings of any parent. You can bet that the bullies, lunchroom squabbles, or anything else that caused it would be addressed before the next school bell rings.
But a call to the principal wouldn’t fix the issue that kept 9-year-old Zoey Harrison from playing outside with her friends. Instead, it was a logistical problem. Zoey, who has cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair – and getting bundled up for Michigan’s bitterly cold winter days just took too long.
“Zoey came home from school saying she was done with recess because by the time she got ready to go outside in the winter, it was time to come back in,” her mom, Jennifer Harrison, explains. “She asked me to make something to make it quicker and easier to go play with her friends.”
That’s when the Ithaca mother’s sewing skills, learned in her local 4-H club as a child, came in handy. She made a special bodycoat that would lay flat on Zoey’s wheelchair and zip up over her in seconds. Getting ready for recess became a breeze – and a video Harrison posted to Facebook about it went viral overnight, proving just how many other kids needed the same thing.
“The feeling was completely surreal,” she says. “I was in total disbelief of the places and people who saw the video.”
The mother of invention
It is said that “necessity is the mother of invention,” and this mother took that proverb seriously. With thousands of people across the globe reaching out to Harrison about getting a bodycoat of their own, a much-needed business was born. She and her husband, John, patented the design and launched X Ability – a name that signifies crossing out the “dis” in “disability” – and started producing the warm, water-resistant, and stylish coats for people of all ages.
One year later, the business is thriving. It celebrated its first anniversary this fall.
“The first year of X-Ability was a complete blur,” Harrison says. “Between the media presence, sales, manufacturing, meetings (and) marketing strategies, we are glad we surrounded ourselves with great people to guide us in the right direction.”
As parents to 11 children – two biological and nine adopted, ranging in age from the oldest at 26 to the youngest at 3 – “spare time” is limited and starting a business wasn’t exactly in the plans; but, Harrison says the company’s first year has been gratifying beyond measure.
“It was the most condensed year of my life between the business, our family, and five little ones at home. At the same time, it was one of the most rewarding years of my life as well,” she says.
Zoey, who has cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair and inspired the X Ability bodycoats.
Based out of the retired funeral home the family purchased five years ago due to its accessibility and large doorways, X Ability is run mainly by Jennifer and John, their “beautiful model and inspiration” Zoey, now 10, and the help of some of their adult children.
Keeping it local
X Ability uses local businesses for manufacturing, promotional products, and supplies – “That is very important to us,” Harrison points out.
“Even though we haven’t ‘hired’ anyone else, our manufacturer hired three new employees to make our bodycoats,” she adds.
They also received support from the CMURC, a professional coworking space in Mt. Pleasant that works to boost local entrepreneurs and help grow area businesses.
Erin Strang, president and CEO of CMURC, said X Ability was selected to participate in the three-phase Right Choice Program, which is designed to bring companies from “idea to first sale.”
“The program is designed for entrepreneurs with an innovative, high-tech idea or products,” Strang says. At the time, “This company was in the perfect stage to engage with CMURC. They already identified that there was a demand for their product, they had developed a proof-of-concept and just needed help to move it to the next phase.”
A new website and marketing plan helped propel the business forward, and increased sales meant Jennifer and John could focus on the business full-time.
As the business grows, Harrison says they have plans to add new product styles and patterns, add more seasons of outerwear and “partner with other great entrepreneurs to create a one-stop shop for the mobility world.”
Making an impact
Feedback from customers has been overwhelming, with pictures and reviews from all over the country and beyond offering a daily reminder of X Ability’s impact.
Zoey, who inspired X Ability, demonstrates how some of X Ability's products work.
"This is the best part. We receive feedback from about 90% of our customers in the shape of photos, emails, Facebook posts, and even a few YouTube videos,” she says. “We love to hear how our product makes their lives easier.”
Parents of kids with special needs know that advocating for their child’s needs becomes essential. Harrison suggests that parents seeking services and other support check with local agencies for assistance, including the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the Salvation Army, and mental health organizations.
“They will be able to point them in the right direction and have contacts for them,” she says.
The Harrison family – including the newest addition, their 4-month-old grandson – enjoys game nights, swimming, skiing, traveling and exploring interesting places in Michigan. As for Zoey, knowing other kids have an easier time at recess thanks to her family’s bodycoats means a lot.
“She loves seeing the photos of people in ‘her’ coats, and even gets the chance from time to time to speak to customers herself on the telephone,” Harrison says, and the rest of the family feels the same. “There are no words to describe the feeling we get from helping others out. Feels like we got hit by the Holy Spirit.”