With a Little Help Pulling Strings, Puppeteer Profits

Like many other successful entrepreneurs, Dusty Dutton has turned her passion into a profession. For the past six years, the popular puppeteer in Marin County, Calif., has made a profitable business out of entertaining children at schools, birthday parties, and public events. But what makes Dutton particularly noteworthy is that she’s among the 13 percent of adults with developmental disabilities statewide who hold down a job, and one of even fewer who’s self-employed.

“I am the CEO of my own company, Dusty’s Puppets,” she explains proudly. The 36-year-old, who was born with Down syndrome, operates her sole proprietorship with support from family and social services.

Dutton grew up loving Sesame Street characters and TV programs. Under the aegis of Casa Allegra Community Services, a nonprofit organization that assists people with developmental disabilities, she began volunteering as a puppeteer at the YMCA and local schools. The response was so enthusiastic that Dusty’s parents, Dale and Donna, realized that her talent for entertaining children could evolve into a small business.

“Disabled people in California get $831 a month from Social Security, so a few extra dollars mean an awful lot,” Dale says. “It took two or three years for us to figure out what would work and what would not, how she could be successful and how much money she could actually make. Dusty came along for the ride because she loves doing puppets and she loves the response she gets from kids.” Her audience typically consists of children from 1 to 4 years old.

Dusty’s live-in assistant, Angela Gallardo, tends to her personal needs and acts as a business manager, scheduling appearances and negotiating contracts. Gallardo gets paid through various subsidies, and Casa Allegra subsidizes the rent on the house where she and Dusty live. The vehicle they use to accommodate all of puppets and props was funded through a Social Security work-incentive program called PASS (Plan for Achieving Self-Sufficiency).

Dusty now participates in Casa Allegra’s micro-enterprise incubator, which lays out steps for achieving self-sufficiency. She performs several times a week, earning from $50 to $175 for private shows. At public events she performs for tips. At each one, Donna plays CDs of assorted songs, and Dusty makes the puppets sing and dance along. To boost her income, Dusty has become a distributor for two major puppet manufacturers, whose products she sells at her shows and at craft fairs. She also occasionally gets paid to speak about her entrepreneurial success.

Dusty’s passion for her work is apparent in her puppetry, and the characters give her a means to express herself in ways she otherwise couldn’t, due to her disability, Dale says. What’s more, thanks the support of her family and Casa Allegra, she and her small business are thriving.

About Francine Brevetti

Francine Brevetti has covered business for newspapers in New York, a Hong Kong, the UK, and most recently the Oakland Tribune. A native San Franciscan, she delights in her Italian heritage and despairs about ever learning Mandarin. She also ghostwrites autobiographies and runs a workshop guiding people to write their own memoirs. Find her at FrancineBrevetti.com
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