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Small Business
Agency for special kids
January 3, 2001: 10:37 a.m. ET

One-person modeling agency focuses on youngsters with disabilities
By Jane Applegate
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) - When Susan Kane, editor in chief of Baby Talk magazine, a parenting magazine with a circulation of two million, wanted to feature a baby with Down syndrome on the cover, it took her almost a year to find a model.

Kane's search began when the magazine ran a story of one mother's experience being pregnant with a Down syndrome baby. The writer, Martha Beck, described her first visit to the obstetrician's office after the news. As she sat in the waiting room reading baby magazines, she saw no pictures of children who would look like hers.

Beck's story, said Kane, "was like a dagger in my heart. I realized that I had been remiss and that I could do something about it. I heard from a lot of parents after Martha's story ran -- parents who said it was painful for them to see their children nowhere (in print)."

Kane vowed to do something about it, but had a tough time finding a model for her planned cover shot. Her search ended when a photographer told her about Beautiful Kids Inc., a modeling agency for children with special needs based in Hadley, Mass. It's run by entrepreneur Ginnie Cummo.

Cummo, whose own children modeled and at one point taught hearing-impaired kids, started her agency in 1994. She is the only employee and hasn't made enough money to pay herself a steady salary. Her commission from the fees pays the children and covers her expenses -- most of the time.

'I can't give it up'

"My phone bills and postage bills are enormous," she said. "It's either turn it around or close up, but closing is not really an option. ... I can't give it up."

Thanks to Cummo's efforts, Judy Adams, who has Down syndrome, will appear on the cover of the February issue of Baby Talk, due out in the middle of January. With this upcoming issue, Baby Talk expects to be the first general interest magazine to feature a cover photograph of a child who is "differently-abled," despite the fact that 8.2 percent of children between the ages of 3 and 21 have special needs.

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  There are over 50 million disabled people in the United States, and these kids do everything other children do.  
     
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  Ginnie Cummo
Beautiful Kids Inc.
 
Kane is passionate about her decision to feature Judy, but admits, "It's a risk. There's a chance parents will look at the magazine and think, 'That's not like my baby, it's not of interest to me.'" Despite the risks, Kane believes, "This is a group of kids who aren't seen. They need to be represented."

Baby Talk may be the first magazine to feature a child with special needs on its cover, but retail giant Toys "R" Us (TOY: Research, Estimates) has been using models with special needs for almost a decade in TV and print advertisements.

Mary Hogarth, a creative director for Toys "R" Us Inc., reports that the company has hired special-needs children as models since 1992, when the company decided to feature all kinds of kids in its ads. Toys "R" Us also produces a guide to help parents of children with special needs choose appropriate products.

"We use children with disabilities in all advertising, not just the guide," Hogarth said.

Beautiful Kids' founder, Cummo, said her clients also include Ames (AMES: Research, Estimates) department stores, Nordstrom (JWN: Research, Estimates), Sears (S: Research, Estimates) and Target (TGT: Research, Estimates). Cummo has also helped publishers like McGraw Hill (MHP: Research, Estimates), Pearsons and Houghton Mifflin (HTN: Research, Estimates) find models.

Her business may not be profitable, but Cummo feels it is a success.

"I love what I do," she says. "I'm very happy."

Building a marketing budget

Her biggest problem, which she hopes to overcome this year, is the lack of a marketing budget.

"I don't have enough money to advocate and advertise to get more business," she said.

Concerned about the financial future of her business, Cummo explored the idea of turning her business into a nonprofit organization, but she says she felt it wasn't appropriate.

"I'm in the process of applying for grants and loans from corporations to help promote us," Cummo said.

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  I get a lot of letters from parents and professionals thanking me. They use these ads to show kids that they can be anything they want to be - they're valuable and special.  
     
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  Mary Hogarth
Toys "R" Us
 
Awareness and tolerance may be growing, thanks in part to Cummo's efforts, but acceptance of children with special needs as models is far from universal.

"People still look at these kids as not perfect," Cummo said, adding that some prospective clients tell her, "People will think our product is tainted" if it's seen with a child who is visibly disabled.

So her challenge is twofold: Book more jobs for her models, and convince potential clients that using children with special needs in their advertising is a good business decision.

To boost revenues, she's increasing the fees for her models, from $75-$100 an hour, to be in line with most children's modeling fees, which range from $100-$150 an hour. Cummo receives a 20 percent commission, which she bills to the client. She recently fielded a casting call from Miramax for the film version of "The Shipping News."

"There are over 50 million disabled people in the United States," Cummo said, "and these kids do everything other children do."

Looking for balance in advertising

As she sees it, featuring people with special needs in an ad campaign isn't just good ethics, it's good business.

"All of us know that we look for balance of all children, all colors, all ethnicities and all abilities," says Mary Hogarth of Toys "R" Us. "I don't get negative feedback. If anything, I get a lot of letters from parents and professionals thanking me. They use these ads to show kids that they can be anything they want to be -- they're valuable and special."

Terilyn Calandro is the mother of 7-year-old Alyse, who has Down syndrome and models for Beautiful Kids.

"She loves the attention," Calandro said. "She takes her pictures to school, and the teacher posts them in the class. Kids talk to her about it and stop her in the halls. She's the little celebrity in school. She sees her pictures and tells me, 'It's me, mommy. I'm just beautiful,' and I say, 'Yes, Alyse, you are.'"

Unlike many older mothers who have children with Down syndrome, Calandro was 26 when Alyse was born.

"Having Alyse has taught me a lot. You don't put these kids away. Every step she takes, everything she makes is such a great joy. If she were a basic kid, it probably wouldn't be such a big deal."

Models who are good at what they do

While the models Cummo employs have special needs, they are very good at what they do. This dedication may explain why Cummo doesn't want to turn her company into a charity -- she considers herself and her models professionals and wants to be treated accordingly.

"For any cover, you have to shoot a number of children," Kane said. "Children are children. You can't just say, 'Smile.'"

When she found Judy Adams through Beautiful Kids, Kane said she knew her search was over.

"(Judy) had this thing that models have -- this incredible temperament. She got in front of the camera, and she just beamed. She's one of the most beautiful girls I've ever seen," Kane added.

"I was looking through the loupe at the slides. When I saw her picture, I got tears in my eyes. I looked at her smiling face and I thought, 'This is it. We have our cover.'" graphic

Jane Applegate, a syndicated columnist and author of 201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business, is founder of sbtv.com, a video network for business owners. "Succeeding in Small Business" appears on Wednesdays.

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2018 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2018. All rights reserved. Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2018 and/or its affiliates.