By Gillian Hand
At first glance, it might appear like any other store. Colorful merchandise, carefully handled and placed, lines the walls, and enthusiastic and knowledgeable workers greet you with a smile. You feel welcomed, and in the hands of experts.
But this is more than just a store. It is Yes She Can Inc.’s Girl AGain American Girl © resale boutique–a center of learning, progression and happiness for young women on the autism spectrum.
Preparing for the Workforce of the Future
Yes She Can Inc., founded by former corporate marketer Marjorie Madfis, provides these women with the training and education of business skills transferable to the competitive work world. Girl AGain taps into their passion for and expertise with American Girl products while creating a safe working environment, training them in the skills that will enable them to acquire and sustain employment.
Madfis found inspiration for Girl AGain in her daughter Isabelle, a teenage girl with autism. Though a fan of, and expert on, all things American Girl, the store in Manhattan posed the threat of sensory overload*. “What if I could create a mini version of the store?” Madfis thought, and Girl AGain was born. Alongside Chappaqua resident and psychologist Sheri Baron, Madfis opened the White Plains store in February 2014. The program provides coaching and support in the development of retail-related business skills, along with a nurturing place where their expertise is needed, appreciated, and valued.
Twelve young women–high school students and graduates in their teens to early twenties–currently work in the boutique, receiving experience in all aspects of the business. Most work approximately two days per week, and get trained “end-to-end” in the variety of skills needed both in Girl AGain and in the work world. This includes preparing donated products for resale, researching and determining appropriate prices, and performing business transactions with customers. They solve problems, collaborate with colleagues and make decisions, all while learning how to deal with uncertainty. By sharing and justifying their ideas, the young women develop the ability to debate and compromise–skills that are crucial in any work environment. Madfis and Baron are aware that this program isn’t for everyone; the participants must be willing to put in effort, cooperate with others, and have motivation to pursue a career.
“There is such an insecurity to give answers and trust their own instincts,” says Baron regarding the training. “They have not yet been given the opportunity to use their own judgment.” Girl AGain’s non-profit mission confronts both this insecurity and the attention, sensory and emotional problems associated with autism disorders. Madfis describes the store as “a safe place to learn new skills without worrying about possible consequences of errors.”
Real World Training Working at Girl AGain has allowed the young women to discover their own strengths and weaknesses. The workers must learn to interact with customers, adjust to distractions, understand the levels of authority, and manage situations they have not anticipated. These experiences teach them the expectations and responsibilities of competitive business –but if they ever feel overwhelmed, they can “chill” in the boutique’s “Cozy Corner” and take a break from the hustle of the workplace.
To develop social communication skills, the young women lead special events at Girl AGain where they demonstrate their knowledge and interact with members of the community. Whether it is American Girl doll “Hair Do’s and Don’ts” or a special book reading, these “workshops” provide the women with leadership experience. In addition, weekly business meetings feature the exchange of strategies and ideas followed by a group pizza dinner, both of which are important in the social development of these otherwise isolated young women. Interacting with peers, especially those who share their interests, creates a comfortable social environment where they can stretch in areas that are difficult for them and build their confidence around others.
Madfis and Baron describe the program as an “incubator” where the young women receive the experience they need before progressing to a paid job or additional training. Girl AGain is their first step toward finding success in the competitive workforce, world they hope will discover the potential and capability of workers with autism.
Helping the Mission
Girl AGain’s eager customer base–both young American Girl enthusiasts and older collectors of the brand –happily support the program for its mission of educating the young women as well as its constantly evolving inventory of reasonably priced merchandise. These customers act as part of the training, presenting social and professional interaction opportunities. Girl AGain is grateful for any donations, as they excite the workers, enrich the training, and expand the store’s offerings.
Girl AGain is the first venture of Yes She Can Inc., but certainly not the last. Madfis and Baron continue to develop the program and increase the learning and employment opportunities for girls on the autism spectrum. There is no doubt at all that these young women will develop the vital life skills necessary to live, work, and prosper on their own, bringing their unique talents to whatever they chose to pursue. Yes She Can, indeed.
For more info, visit: www.yesshecaninc.org or www.girlagain.com or contact Sheri Baron at firstname.lastname@example.org
*Editor’s note: Sensory overload occurs when one or more of the body’s senses experiences over stimulation from the environment; many people with autism are acutely, uncomfortably and/or overly sensitive to various sensory stimuli–a large, bustlingly crowded store such as American Girl in Manhattan would present a significant challenge.
Gillian Hand is a sophomore at Horace Greeley High School and a frequent contributor to Inside Chappaqua Magazine. She was thrilled to be able to donate her old American Girl products to Girl AGain.