There are two tell tale signs that you’re in the right place when reaching Downlights candle HQ. The first is the sublime scents. The second is the raucous laughter from the team of four staff and four team members in training who make the magic happen.
It’s this sense of joy and vitality that candlemaker Jack Bird – Downlights’ first and longest serving employee – enjoys most about his work here.
“I just have so much fun,” he says. “And I always smell nice.”
It’s evident Jack – nicknamed ‘Jack the Minute Man’ for his ability to pour a candle a minute (sometimes up to 400 an hour) without any mess – finds a real sense of purpose in his work. He smiles his way through the process, centring the candle wicks meticulously before pouring the hot, melted wax with a steady hand.
Observing his strong work ethic, it might seem as though Jack has always been calm and assured, but it wasn’t always like this for the 26-year-old. He has a disability called Goldenhar syndrome and has struggled with the confidence to try new things and speak to new people.
In fact, all employees of the luxury soy candle company and award-winning social enterprise are New Zealanders with Down syndrome or learning disabilities.
With an extensive career in manufacturing luxury candles through her company Illumina, founder and managing director Jennifer Del Bel launched Downlights in 2018 after recognising the workplace barriers for disabled people.
Jennifer is dedicated to creating employment and personal growth opportunities for people living with disabilities. She pays all staff a living wage and has adapted a business model designed and operated through the perspective of the disability sector to create an inclusive work environment for each member of the Downlights crew and their support teams.
“I don’t come from a lived experience so I have to work with the families of my employees to get their perspective. That has really changed me as a person and also both of my daughters who have volunteered at Downlights,” Jennifer says. “My children have become completely different young women for working with the team here. They’ve learnt about some of the most important things in life, which includes an immense dedication and focus on work.”
And Jennifer’s biggest learning from working with the Downlights crew? The sheer resilience of her staff. She’s referring to how some employees – Jack included – travel up to two hours each day and independently navigate multiple public transport systems across Auckland, turning up to work on time with a smile.
Employees come from two avenues – Recreate New Zealand’s MOXIE Mission, dedicated to giving young people with disabilities life changing experiences through meaningful opportunities crossing into employment, and Pegasus, a special education unit of Auckland’s Pakuranga College.
Jennifer has developed the skills and confidence of her crew to a point where their work is comparable to non-disabled artisans, challenging any perceptions that the disabled workforce is only suitable for low-paid, unskilled work.
In fact, the Downlights range – comprising 19 fragrances developed by a fifth-generation French perfumer from the internationally famous Grasse perfumeries in Cote D’ Azure – has among the most luxurious products on the market.
Thirteen candle designs include a Lifelight emergency candle complete with matches for use in natural disasters, camping trips or power outages. And Downlights donate a portion of sales to New Zealand Red Cross, helping them support communities affected by disasters.
The Downlights Charitable Trust was established in 2020, providing a dollar from every candle sold to continue the work of the New Zealand Down Syndrome Association, Recreate NZ and Living Wage Aotearoa. To date, these organisations have collectively received more than $40,000 from candle sales.
But the Downlights flame hasn’t always burnt so brightly. Multiple attempts to grow the business and purchase new equipment through fundraising were thwarted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Most people would probably have given up, but when I look at how much effort Jack and his fellow employees have put into learning, their resilience has been what keeps me going,” Jennifer says.
That positivity has seen the business grow, slowly but surely, and enabled the latest purchase of ‘Walter the Wax Melter’ which has taken staff from pouring 200 candles a day to up to 400 an hour. There are also a range of flameless diffusers and aroma stones, gift sets and seasonal Christmas edits sold online and in well-known stockists including Smith & Caughey’s department store in Auckland. Furthermore, an exclusive range has been developed in collaboration with Briscoes and the latest product launch includes Downlights candle supplies for DIY candle making at home.
Explore more from AA Directions magazine while you're here:
- Live well: a Cape South wellness retreat in Hawke's Bay
- Does reducing speed limits actually work?
- A family getaway in Ōtepoti Dunedin