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Dad of 10 drives ice cream truck to support his kids with Down syndrome

Joel Wagener isn't just serving ice cream. He's bringing sweet joy to his children and community.

Dad Joel Wegener is using his newly-founded ice cream business to give back to his community and create a career path for his children.

Wagener, a father of 10, started operating an ice cream truck in April 2021. He explained to TODAY's Craig Melvin that he found the used vehicle in January, and soon, a business was born.

"My wife had the the brilliant idea to name it Special Neat Treats, a play on words of special needs," Wagener said.

Two of his children help out on the truck. Son Josh and daughter Mary Kate were both born with Down syndrome, and Wagener quickly realized that the truck offered a future for them after they aged out of the school system.

Wagener bought the used ice cream truck in January and started selling sweet treats in April 2021.
Wagener bought the used ice cream truck in January and started selling sweet treats in April 2021. TODAY

"At every stage, with special needs kids, you look towards the future and what's their life going to be like in the next phase," Wagener explained. "It also becomes more responsibility of us as parents to say 'What can we do to give them worth and to allow them to add some value to society?' That's very important to us as the parents of Mary Kate and Josh."

Over the summer, the trio sold plenty of ice cream — and also served up some sweetness at a local school.

"There was a school here that was doing a special program for special needs kids, and they had contacted me and wanted me to bring treats to give out to the students there on an afternoon," Wagener said. "A little girl came up and she said 'Thanks for coming today; you made my day.' I didn't cure her autism, I didn't take care of the other issues in her life, but for one day for one moment, she had a great day.

"I realized, when I left, this isn't about selling ice cream," Wagener continued. "We do that, but it's about giving hope, it's about interacting with people and just sharing joy."

Now, Mary Kate and Josh are having a great time working with their dad to sell what they call the best ice cream in America. Mary Kate said she's looking forward to "always" working on the truck and said that Wagener was "the best dad ever."

"When teachers and people would ask her 'What do you want to do when you get older?' she wanted to work with Papa," Wagener said.

Wagener told Craig that working alongside his children on the truck has been "the greatest joy."

Wagener said that he has loved working on the truck with his kids.
Wagener said that he has loved working on the truck with his kids. TODAY

"In my wildest dreams, I would have never sat around and said 'An ice cream truck, that's where I'm going to spend the rest of my life,'" Wagener said.

To make it even better, business is booming on the truck: Since starting in April, the family has sold more than 10,000 delicious treats in the Cincinnati area. Wagener is hoping to expand the business and help even more children with special needs while continuing his mission to help his children.

"As a parent, you have desires," Wagener said. "I don't know that either one of them will ever be totally independent. But we hope to move them in that direction, and I hope they can keep helping me sell ice cream for a long time."