Karen Copeland is a very thankful person. She says she’s especially grateful this Thanksgiving for the community support that has made her Sammysoap store and soap factory in downtown Kirkwood a destination spot for people all around the metro area.
“People know us,” Copeland says with a bit of surprise in her voice. “When people have family visit from out of town, they bring them here. It’s kind of a little tourist thing!”
Although Copeland has even become somewhat of a local celebrity in the soap business, I’ve known her for a long time. In fact, we were classmates in Ferguson and graduated from McCluer High School in the bicentennial class of ’76. We even hung out with some of the same groups at Mizzou – her group affectionately known as the hobbits, mine less-affectionately known as the clams. But that’s another story, thankfully, for another time.
After Copeland earned her degree from Mizzou, she began an odyssey of sorts. She hitchhiked to Alaska, became a ski bunny in Vale and even drove a school bus for a time before she went back to college at Webster University and earned her master’s degree in international business. She landed a job with Famous-Barr and traveled to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Rim for a few years. She came home, got married, got divorced and worked for Famous until the Macy’s takeover in 2008. She had two sons. Nick came first – and then there was Sammy. Sammy is why we now have Sammysoap and the reason Copeland has become a strong advocate for individuals with disabilities, as Sammy was diagnosed with an intellectual disability at 6 months.
“After I had Sam, my perspective started to change,” Copeland says. “I started to get more empathetic to the world in general.” She says Sammy was very happy, lovable and relatively easy to care for, but her husband struggled with depression, and their marriage soon fell apart. Copeland was suddenly a single working mom. She took a second job with a social service organization to learn more about what was ahead for her son. Copeland didn’t always like what she saw. She wanted to find a way to help Sammy’s life be more meaningful while starting a business and a new career. An all-natural soap factory somehow seemed to be the perfect fit. Copeland opened shop in the old Kirkwood Firehouse No. 1, and both she and Sammy went to work.
The business thrived and so did Sammy and the other disabled individuals who worked with them. Copeland stresses the factory is intentionally not a nonprofit. She says it’s in the business of staying in business, and everyone there works hard for his or her money.
“Nobody wants pity,” Copeland says. “Everybody wants dignity to fail or succeed just like the rest of us. You’ve got to let these kids go; just like all kids, they deserve a chance at life. We can’t keep them back just because it’s more comfortable for us.”
There are free tours of the factory every day, and groups like the Girl Scouts, church clubs and others are regular visitors. Copeland says they learn about how to make natural soap and why it’s so much healthier than the mass-produced kinds, but that’s just part of what they discover.
“The idea is that people can come in to the factory and learn about all-natural products,” Copeland says. “We teach them about the vitamins and minerals and amino acids that are in essential oils, and while they’re in the factory, they see our guys working, and if they’re interested in learning about ways to help people with disabilities, then we’ll talk about that, too.”
The goal is to open a lot more Sammysoap stores and soap factories, and hire a lot more people who are willing and able to work.
“People with disabilities are underestimated and underutilized,” Copeland says. She calls her business a “job-creation machine for adults with intellectual disabilities, disguised as the world’s best soap company.”
The company’s mission statement includes support of human health, a clean planet, wage equality and fair-trade practices. It’s all part of Copeland’s dream to “change the world” – or at least part of it. And on top of all that, the factory just smells really, really nice. Copeland and Sammy have become the two most famous soap-makers in St. Louis. Their story is an inspiration, and for that, we can all be thankful.
Paul Brown is a longtime journalist on radio, on television and in print as a reporter, an anchor, a talk show host and a columnist. He’s also a media and public relations consultant with Paul Brown Media.