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UW Student Combines Disabilities Studies, Social Work with Entrepreneurism

March 31, 2020
a woman and a girl sitting together
UW student Tea Hill, right, and Emma Juelfs enjoy a rest break from swimming lessons this past summer. Hill is scheduled to graduate this spring and open an ice cream business that employs people with and without disabilities. (Jordan Kaylea Photo)

Students beginning their studies in the University of Wyoming Division of Social Work are immediately encouraged to embrace career goals that include creating positive change in society and promoting the health and well-being of individuals, families, organizations and communities throughout Wyoming and beyond.

For Belle Fourche, S.D., native Tea Hill, the pursuit of a second course of study added depth and a layer of human understanding that helped form a distinct career path. Hill is set to graduate this spring from the UW College of Health Sciences with a Bachelor of Social Work and a minor in disability studies, offered through the Wyoming Institute for Disabilities (WIND).

After placing third in the 2019 UW John P. Ellbogen $50K Entrepreneurship Competition, Hill was awarded $10,000 for a business model that would incorporate the knowledge and values of both her major and minor. Torch Creamery, an ice cream business whose current motto is “sugar with a mission,” was conceived by Hill and her sister Tesa as a business model that would provide inclusive employment for both individuals with and without disabilities.

“We saw the need within the disability community -- the need to be heard and respected within the labor force,” Hill says. “Our mission is to create a fun and meaningful business environment that allows for people, both disabled and nondisabled, to gain independence in the way they desire.”

With plans to officially open Torch Creamery in her hometown of Belle Fourche this coming June, Hill is excited about the benefits to both employees and customers.

“Ultimately, we want Torch Creamery to be a model for other businesses; hiring people with disabilities should be a normal business practice, and it has immense benefits,” Hill says. “We want that to be well known, and we hope our advocacy and partnership with people with disabilities will break down common barriers they face in society. We want to grow into a business that offers a welcoming and inclusive community to all, including working with the homeless population as well. This is so much more than serving ice cream -- although we all know that is pretty important, too.”

The name of the business originated from the Flame of Hope that appears during the Special Olympics’ torch runs and opening ceremonies.

“It is a symbol of inclusion and hope for those with intellectual disabilities,” Hill says. “It is a movement to include them within the larger community and to acknowledge and appreciate all. My sister and I are honored to represent such a movement.”

Reflecting on her choice of a career in social work, Hill says, “I think genuine human relationships and the power of listening are change agents for a more supportive and understanding community and country.”

As for pursuing the disabilities studies minor, Hill says, “I got involved volunteering for Special Olympics in high school, and the rest is history.”

“After I graduated high school, I knew I wanted to continue learning about this population, their culture and how to challenge the negative stigmas that tend to define them,” she says. “I wanted to do this in a way that would encourage and empower them, so I chose to pursue a major in social work while enhancing it with a minor in disability studies.”

Hill credits everyone in the UW Division of Social Work, including her classmates, for supporting her entrepreneurial goals.

“We are all very proud of Tea’s ingenuity, creativity and commitment to creating opportunities for individuals with disabilities,” says Eleanor Downey, director of the Division of Social Work. “She has successfully merged her passion, an innovative business plan, with her social work skills and values.”

Hill also credits support from her faculty in her disability studies minor through WIND, saying it caused her to look at accessibility in a whole new light.

“It has been such a pleasure to work with Tea over the past few years. She has been passionate about working with people with disabilities from the start, and I’m so proud of her business venture,” says Associate Professor Michelle Jarman, director of the minor in disability studies. “I think the disability studies minor offered opportunities for her to gain more insight into the subtleties of increasing access through removing barriers, changing attitudes and continuing to reimagine inclusion. Tea naturally sees the strengths in people, and she envisions this startup business as one that will not only provide employment, but also will be collaborative and offer leadership opportunities for individuals with disabilities. Tea is a rare and impressive person, and I look forward to seeing how her path unfolds.”

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