- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 20, 2014

KATY, Texas (AP) - Nolan Stilwell steps into his black chef’s jacket. He’s moving slowly, thoughtfully. His father, Randy Stilwell, helps with the sleeves and buttons. Normally Nolan would don a gauzy white cap to work in the kitchen, but today he has a show to put on. He goes instead with a snug black hat emblazoned with the words “The Jam Man” across the front, and a big smile.

The 24-year-old is the man behind Katy’s Sweet Heat Jam Co. According to Nolan, the journey to the prep room in the Houston Food Bank arranging meatballs on small white plates for seven hungry judges as part of H-E-B’s Quest for Texas Best competition is simple: “I love making jam.”

The shot at the grand prize - $25,000, to be awarded this week - has him nervous. He’s made it to the third round with 25 other finalists. But he’s faced tougher odds.

Nolan has Down syndrome, a lifelong condition that makes it difficult for many of those affected to find employment and independence after high school.

“It’s kind of like they get cut off,” said Christine Stilwell, Nolan’s mother and the founder of Sweet Heat Jam. “They get cut off from employment and from being with peers, and that in itself has its own set of problems.”

Company expanding

That was the impetus behind her launch of the company in 2011. She wanted to give Nolan a place to be productive and to use his culinary skills, honed over years in the kitchen of their Katy home.

As the company grew, moving into its own commercial kitchen in 2013, it was able to hire another full-time employee, Melissa Correa, who also has Down syndrome. The kitchen even started an internship program to give more young adults with special needs a chance to work in a kitchen designed with them in mind.

Roughly one in 700 babies born in this country has one of the three types of Down syndrome, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Roughly half of the children born with the genetic, chromosomal disorder suffer from heart defects. The condition has a range of symptoms from physical to mental, but the severity varies widely.

Roughly 250,000 Americans now live with Down syndrome, and outcomes are dramatically different from what they were just a generation ago, according to Dr. Kathryn Klish Ostermaier, director of the Down syndrome clinic at Texas Children’s Hospital and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine.

Individuals with the condition who once lived only to their 20s are now living into their 60s. Ostermaier credits the greater life expectancy to better surgical techniques and increased understanding of some of the complications that can accompany the condition.

For her patients, that also means better support services for adults with Down syndrome, including more community college courses and job-coaching opportunities.

“As a country and as a local community, things are growing and evolving,” Ostermaier told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1kVbD93 ).

Familiar with many of the area programs, she said Katy schools, which Nolan attended, are known for having a fairly inclusive approach. “Katy does a nice job,” she said. “I think they’re moving toward allowing more inclusion, which is kind of what most parents are looking for.”

But the transition out of high school is still a large question mark for many. “That’s a hard period for families,” Ostermaier said.

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