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Woburn

The Mercantile is a gift boutique with a deeper story

Tiffany Arsenia held a birdhouse she worked on at NuPath.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Tiffany Arsenia held a birdhouse she worked on at NuPath.

Tucked away on New Boston Street, about a mile from the Woburn Mall, is a boutique with a twist, slowly getting known by word of mouth.

The Mercantile, a gift store founded about two years ago, is stocked with an array of “Made in America’’ handcrafted items: decorative pillows with holiday and friendship themes; baby blankets and gifts; embroidered table centerpieces shaped like swans for weddings or showers; and beaded jewelry with Swarovski crystals.

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Two factors distinguish The Mercantile: It can custom-design many items upon request, in quantities as few as one to 50, at reasonable prices. And it is housed within NuPath, a Woburn-based agency that helps people with disabilities.

For creative director Sonja Halliday of Wilmington, the tempered pace of business at The Mercantile is just right.

In 2006, after quitting a long career in the sewing industry, Halliday wanted a complete change. A “drivers wanted” ad caught her eye.

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The job was with NuPath. Through its residential, employment, and day rehabilitation programs, NuPath assists 350 people a day who have physical and developmental disabilities, including autism spectrum and emotional disorders, in more than 40 communities throughout Middlesex County.

NuPath, which opened in 1968, offers job training and placement, affordable housing, transportation, and other services to enable people with disabilities to become more productive members of the larger community.

‘We have to educate people that people with disabilities are people.’

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“They were like, ‘Can you start tomorrow?’ ” recalled Halliday, a tall blonde in her 40s.

During the next six years, she revamped the transportation department at NuPath as it expanded from 25 to 48 routes, and was promoted to transportation director. But it was not enough.

“I can bring more to the table,’’ she recalled telling chief executive and president Sheri McCann in 2010.

Folks at NuPath already were making and selling beaded jewelry. With the right resources, Halliday believed she could teach NuPath individuals to sew, thus adding country-craft products to the line. She had taught sewing for 16 years from within JoAnn Fabrics in Saugus, and also ran her own sewing business.

McCann, who had received one of Halliday’s quilts, gave the go-ahead.

Halliday applied for and received a $50,000 grant for NuPath to buy computerized sewing machines, and she hired two of her former employees, Flora Oates and Heather Gramstorff.

From there, “It’s just grown and grown and grown,” Halliday said.

“This is no window dressing,’’ said Dan Harrison, vice president of operations.

NuPath individuals are paid for their work, receiving up to $250 a week. Halliday said a specific time-task analysis is used to determine an appropriate wage, since it can take a disabled person longer to make a product or perform a service. Prices charged for goods and services are comparable to market rate. Workers are retimed every six months, enabling them to earn more as they get faster at their tasks.

Proud parents of NuPath individuals are not the only people who shop at the store, located at 147 New Boston St. in Woburn and open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Attracted by the combination of quality product and fair trade, state Senator Patricia Jehlen, Democrat of Somerville, ordered blue scarves embroidered with the state emblem; Wilmington High School’s wrestling team ordered 50 “hoodies” embroidered with custom-designed letters; Grady’s By Design in Newburyport consigns their goods; and Sully’s Tees of Peabody recently placed a rush order.

JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Jeff Caturano and Jack Richards work in the Project Repat.

In 2012, state Representative Jay Kaufman, a Democrat from Lexington, recommended NuPath to Nathan Rothstein and Ross Lohr, who were then in start-up mode for Project Repat, their new Roxbury-based company that “upcycles” old T-shirts into quilts, bags, and scarves.

“We wanted a supply-chain production partner with a mission that resonated with ours,’’ said Rothstein, president of Project Repat. “You walk in there [NuPath] and it’s an amazing place. And Sonja and Heather have extensive experience in the sewing business, more than we had.”

“We make 200 quilts a week,’’ Rothstein said, adding that since Project Repat launched, two more production partners have been added, one in Fall River and 99 Degrees Custom in Lawrence. “But we still drive to NuPath every week with 10 to 15 quilts a week for them to make. They were there with us in the beginning. We feel really great providing that work, and our customers feel great, connecting to their story.”

That story typically is one of determination.

Doris, who comes over to work in the NuPath sewing room two days a week, has cerebral palsy, is nonverbal, and uses a wheelchair, but she can thread a needle with an aide’s help and get a paycheck on Fridays.

Scotty, who also has cerebral palsy, can thread the machine, Halliday said, and load a design into the sewing machine.

The reward is not just in the finished product and the paycheck, but in the workers’ feeling of accomplishment.

“Scotty says, ‘I love my job. You are my family,’ ” Halliday said. “That’s very fulfilling.”

The recent recession forced NuPath to be more creative and entrepreneurial.

“The old model was to guilt you into giving to us,’’ Harrison said.

The new model has sprouted a handful of microbusinesses: landscaping, housecleaning (with an aide), and auto detailing.

Journey Productions is another small business that sprang from what NuPath calls “individual service plans,” said Dave Palazzo, associate director for nine years.

“We were looking to communicate an individual’s progress through the year with slide shows for them to show their families, versus telling them,” he said. “Then people asked us, ‘If I bring in my photos, can you do that for me?’ ”

Customers bring in their legacy media — old VHS tapes, even 8mm film reels — to convert to DVDs. Movies are priced by the minute, photos by quantity. A core group of about five work on Journey Products.

“But everyone gets a chance to try,” Palazzo said.

The Learning Studio is “the jewelry group,” according to Halliday. With a tray of beads in front of them, each person intently strings colorful beads onto elastic string, making bracelets for The Mercantile.

Ashia Miller, a senior at Notre Dame Cristo Rey High School in Lawrence, is helping the jewelry group as part of her high school’s work-study program. Miller is one of 14 Notre Dame students working part time, supported by Notre Dame donors, at either NuPath’s Woburn or Westford facilities.

Each student’s job is worth $26,000, said the school’s director of corporate work study, Sister Maryalyce Gilfeather.

“It’s a twofer donation,’’ she said: Donors help support NuPath while helping Notre Dame educate children. In partnership with NuPath since 2009, she said, “Our kids are working with individuals, even conducting classes, like job interview skills training. The same as we teach our students here.”

Another new business is about to take flight: African birdhouses. The brainchild of case manager Henry Masembe, a native of Uganda, the intricately constructed birdhouses that look like houses in Africa or the tropics can take up to four days to build.

Though he had never made a birdhouse like these in his life, Masembe said, “I’m handy. At home, we make our own toys.” Field trips to pick sticks and pine needles are part of the equation. Each birdhouse is designed to attract a specific type of bird.

The opportunities seem endless.

“A lack of understanding causes people to be afraid,” Harrison said. “We have to educate people that people with disabilities are people.”

Pointing to a 2008 Presidential Award for more than 4,000 combined hours of volunteer service, he said, “Our people give back, too, volunteering at animal shelters and food pantries. We’re part of life.

“Our mission is so simple. Wherever our people are, they should be community-based, woven into the fabric of the community.”

Kathy Shiels Tully can be reached at kathyshielstully@gmail.com.
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