With a heart to serve people with disabilities, Carmela Toler and her business partner Cindy Carter opened an ice cream franchise focused on hiring people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Located on North New Jersey Street, the store is distinguished by a pastel blue and pink sign reading ‘Howdy Homemade Ice Cream’ on the front of the building.
Bright yellow walls inside are eggnog, dr pepper chocolate chip, cookie nomster, lemon raspberry, cheesecake cherry and birthday cake.
In 2021, watching the news, Toler and Carter see a Texas-based ice cream shop and how it survived the pandemic because its employees kept going to work despite everything going on. I heard about What added to their interest was that the franchise employed people with disabilities.
Toler said Indianapolis realized it needed to connect people with disabilities to work.
The business partners began their journey to bring Howdy to the Midwest a year ago when they applied for and were approved for the franchise, then went to the first Howdy in Dallas to meet founder Tom Landis.
Finding a location in Indianapolis was the longest part of the process. Toler and Carter chose a location on North New Jersey Street because of the high traffic. The shop he opened in September, making it the only Howdy in the Midwest.
Toler and Carter met in 1991 while working at a church called St. Vincent New Hope, where they helped people with disabilities. The ice cream shop owner has been working with people with disabilities for 40 years.
Carter said he chose the job because he realized that people with disabilities didn’t have the same opportunities and wanted “the ability to make an impact in life.”
Toler began working in New York in the 1980s to help people with disabilities integrate into the community. Her work “clicked” for her, Toler said.
Carter and Toler now work for LEL Home Services. Carter is the Chief Operating Officer and Toler is his CEO.
The goal of Toler’s ice cream store employees is to open, close and operate the store themselves. Toler has set up various stations around the store so that employees can learn how to operate the cash register and how to make her ice cream and waffle cones.
“We believe that the people we serve should have the typical opportunity you and I have,” says Toler.
Katerina Austrom, 26, one of Howdy’s employees, said she struggled to find work until September 2022, when she started working at an ice cream shop.
“I tried to find other jobs, but I didn’t find one that suited me or liked me that much,” said Austrom, standing behind the register.
Austrom said she enjoys working with other people with disabilities.
A $50,000 grant from the Department of Disability Rehabilitation Services will be used by the owner to help employ people with disabilities, Toler said.
Toler and Carter plan to open another Howdy in Indiana in the next six to eight months, but haven’t decided on a location yet.
For more information, please contact Indianapolis Recorder Staff Writer Timoria Cunningham at 317-762-7854 or email TimoriaC@IndyRecorder.com. Follow @_timoriac on Twitter.