How one local organization provides employment opportunities for adults on the autism spectrum
For parents of children on the autism spectrum, figuring out what comes next after their children age out of school is difficult and stressful. Enter Extraordinary Ventures, a nonprofit organization that provides jobs and a comfortable working environment to adults on the autism spectrum. After visiting Extraordinary Ventures in North Carolina, Chappaqua resident Elise Orlando, whose son is on the autism spectrum, saw an incredible opportunity to bring a similar setting to Westchester as many students at Devereux, a school for children with autism in Millwood, were on the verge of graduating. Extraordinary Ventures offered to open a New York establishment, and now two years later Extraordinary Ventures New York (EVNY) has approximately thirty employees, a number of different businesses and a space in Mount Kisco.
The four board members along with the rest of the staff work tirelessly to support the employees, and have built this organization into something truly amazing. The employees work two to four hours a week, get paid, and even pay taxes, just as they would in any other job. Orlando, a board member, said, “We have worked hard over the years to ensure our children get cutting edge education to meet their needs. They are ready to contribute to society, but in their own way.”
Working Hard & Gaining Confidence
EVNY began with making, packaging and selling candles and bracelets, all of which are broken down into steps to follow. “We look at our population and figure out what skills they have and develop businesses around it,” explained Orlando. The candles and bracelets are often themed seasonally or around holidays, and they can also be customized for gifts or favors for showers, weddings, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and more. The employees are very proud of the merchandise they make, and some of them additionally work as salesmen at the various places the products are showcased, including farmer’s markets, craft fairs, and holiday boutiques. According to EVNY Director Liz Oliveto, “our guys feel much more confident…seeing that they can do things.” This confidence leads to saying yes to trying new things and even volunteering to do tasks, in addition to extending to home life. Both Oliveto and Orlando described how thrilled parents are to hear their children talk so excitedly about work and even change their behavior at home by doing things like baking brownies.
EVNY is also about to launch a commercial laundry service, with an additional specialty service for items like sleeping bags and pet beds. “You can bring your laundry anywhere, but by allowing EVNY to handle it you provide employment for adults with autism and support a mission,” said Orlando. With businesses like this and the candles and bracelets, EVNY is providing these individuals with a variety of opportunities and an environment in which they can interact and learn new skills. “Far too often they are told ‘you can’t do that,’” explained Oliveto, who worked with many of the employees at Devereux. “And that’s the great thing about Extraordinary Ventures…here, they have choices.”
Looking Toward the Future
Moving forward, EVNY is also launching a Vocational Training Program. This 12-session course will teach students the skills necessary to prepare for a job, perform job tasks, and interact properly while at work. Students will learn things like writing a resume, dressing for and participating in an interview, and completing forms. A regular volunteer cohort is also in the cards as the organization continues to grow. Oliveto is hoping to get volunteers of all ages, from 13-year-olds and high schoolers to retirees and senior citizens, to come to EVNY and spend time with the employees. With new partnerships with local groups like the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Mount Kisco, many people will have the opportunity to work closely with EVNY and help them in their mission.
Orlando discussed how the incidence of autism spectrum disorder has increased since her son was diagnosed in 1994, and how education and employment opportunities need to keep up with that. There is no doubt that EVNY is starting to bridge that gap by providing this wonderful opportunity for these employees. In her words, “There’s nothing better than seeing the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment among our employees when they complete a job. And they always seem surprised when they get paid for it!”
The love and passion of Oliveto and her staff is incredible and will only help the organization continue to grow and be more successful in the years to come. With the amazing community interest and support, EVNY will no doubt keep growing its businesses and helping more adults on the autism spectrum. As Oliveto explains, “I genuinely like my employees…they’re fun to work with and fun to be around. I’m glad we made a place where they are happy, productive and comfortable.”
To learn more about Extraordinary Ventures New York, visit www.EVNY.org.