Twins Melissa Danielsen and Melanie Fountaine grew up in northern Minnesota helping to take care of their older brother Josh, who had developmental disabilities and health issues — and the experiences had a profound influence on their trajectories.
When Josh died a decade ago of brain disease, both had built adult lives. Danielsen had a business and marketing career, Fountaine was a school counselor. In the grieving process, the two decided they wanted to take what they had learned from Josh and help other families navigate the disability landscape, which can prove complicated and difficult.
Plus, they missed the close-knit and positive community of Minnesota families with a member challenged with disabilities.
“Melissa and I were in very different careers and we were both starting our families,” Fountaine said. “It started when we almost simultaneously looked at each other one day and said, ‘We really miss him.’ There has to be something there.”
Growing up with a brother with special needs taught the two sisters, now 37, to be compassionate and to see people’s abilities, not their disabilities, Fountaine said. They wanted to share that with others.
Nine years ago, the two started Josh’s Place, which provides 24-hour care for adults with disabilities mainly through group homes in mostly the Twin Cities, St. Cloud and Brainerd.
A little over a year ago, they hired an executive director for Josh’s Place so they could concentrate on their new venture, Joshin, an app that connects families with special needs children or adults with experienced caregivers.
With Uber, Airbnb and other service apps changing the way people do business, they figured they could use technology to fill a gap in disability services.
They have not found another service that concentrates on that sector, which is not small. One of four families in Minnesota has a member with disabilities.
“Being on this journey together has been a gift,” Danielsen said. “We’re building a legacy. Our kids, they won’t know Josh. But they’ll know him through the work we’re doing.”
The sisters — Danielsen is CEO and Fountaine chief development officer — launched a beta version of Joshin last fall. Joshin went live in app stores in February. They now have 500 users in the Twin Cities.
The company expanded to Chicago in August and will begin services in Duluth, St. Cloud and Rochester in November. This fall, the company also started to serve San Francisco at the request of one VIP client, Danielsen said. The company is using that market to test how it can grow organically through word-of-mouth.
Joshin works through a subscription model, $49 for one month and $99 for three months, for private-pay clients. The company has been building relationships with advocacy groups to boost this part of the business, as well as referrals.
But it hopes to grow faster through two avenues: corporate child-care options and through the state’s Medicaid waiver system.
Danielsen has been reaching out to the area’s large corporations, many of which offer backup child care as a benefit. She has been pitching the companies to add Joshin as an option for those families who need more specialized caregivers. So far, Best Buy has signed on, and by February, Joshin hopes to have contracts with at least two more.
At the same time, Fountaine has been working with the Minnesota Department of Health and Human Services to become approved as a caregiver that families can pay through the state’s Medicaid waiver program.
Through the app, a parent fills out a care profile, with information similar to other babysitter sites such as name and address. But there are also questions specific to the disability community such as medications, behavioral triggers, de-escalation techniques and important routines.
Meanwhile, the company does all the screening of caregivers, from criminal background and motor vehicle checks to a social media review.
Building trust with parents that Joshin is providing quality and reliable givers is a must, Fountaine said.
But the company calls its caregivers “joymakers” out of the sisters’ experiences growing up with Josh.
“Melanie and I were raised and truly believe that joy and laughter can get you through really tough times,” Danielsen said. The family had to spend some birthdays and holidays in hospitals because of their brother’s health issues, and the nurses led them through bingo games and other activities that lifted some of the worry.
“That laughter and that fun got us through those days,” she said. “We feel caregivers can mean so many things, but for us it means they are making someone’s day.”