Original article published on The New York Jewish Week

AKIM’s Dental Training Program, in collaboration with the TAU dental school and Israel’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs teaches employment skills in the dental field.

Visitors to Tel Aviv University’s Goldschleger School of Dental Medicine see something innovative and unsurprising as they enter the building–a vending machine sponsored by Colgate dispensing toothbrushes, mouthwash and other dental equipment. A red heart on the glass reads in Hebrew “My health begins in my mouth.”

When visitors go down one flight, they see something even more extraordinary and innovative—four enthusiastic men and women from AKIM, the National Organization for People with Intellectual Disabilities, in their white lab coats, studying and working at the dental school. These young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities make up the first cohort in the Dental Sterilization Officer Training Program, a collaborative venture of AKIM, the TAU dental school, and the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.

The one-year training program started in October, 2018. Trainees participate five days a week—from Sundays through Thursdays–in theoretical and practical coursework. They learn important terminology and receive theoretical training in sterilization, disinfection and hygiene. They collect equipment from various departments, sterilize instruments and carefully scan codes to assure proper tracking of sterilized equipment. Participants work in the dental warehouse, where they prepare and deliver orders of equipment and substances for various clinics, and they learn and perform various administrative tasks.

The author with participants in AKIM Dental Training Program. Courtesy of Howard Blas

In addition, the trainees interact on a daily basis with the university’s dental students. They learn together in some classes, work in the dental clinics, and socialize in the hallways and dining rooms. The participants with disabilities have the additional important job of working in a TAU dental clinic which specializes in treating people with disabilities. Shani Yeshurun, AKIM Israel’s director of international relations, explains, “Everybody feels anxious when they go to the dentist. By seeing and interacting with people like themselves, the stress level of the patient with a disability is reduced.”

On a recent visit, three participants—Amir, Michael and Yael and their mentor, Donna, invited me to tour and witness the sophisticated sterilization equipment. They took turns explaining how the state-of-the-art autoclave sterilizes the equipment, is logged in and prepared for delivery. Michael travels independently each day for Netanya and hopes to get a job closer to home upon graduation. Yael patiently demonstrated how sterilized equipment is packaged and arranged in the store room.

A participant in AKIM Dental Training Program. Courtesy of Howard Blas

Dr. Rada Sumareva, a New York and New Jersey area periodontist and implant surgeon, sees tremendous benefits of the program beyond the practical job skills obtained by the trainees. “By training next to the dental students, the dental students will have a different perspective on people with disabilities. It is one thing to know about disabilities in theory; it is another to have a classmate with a disability and to train together, side by side. This will be very useful when they one-day employ the program graduates in their offices.” She is confident that this will “lead to a culture change in the way we train dentists.”

Sumareva also notes “a tremendous sense of ambassadorship” by having people with disabilities work in the clinics with patients with disabilities. “Patients and their families will see that people with disabilities can integrate, have a job and have a purpose in life!”

Sumereva serves as vice president of AKIM USA and is a member of TAU’s Board of Governors and American Friends of Tel Aviv University’s Board of Directors. Despite her personal deep connection to both dentistry and disabilities, it was her son, Robert Ukrainsky, who helped create the dental sterilization officer training program. While studying for his bar mitzvah several years ago, he participated in the “Give a Mitzvah, Do a Mitzvah” program of the UJA-Federation of New York. Robert, now a 10th grader at the Avenues: The World School in New York City, is a founding member and chair of the Young Friends of AKIM and has donated over $22,000 to date for the TAU/KAIM dental training program.

The first group of graduates will be employed by both the Tel Aviv University Dental Clinic and by AKIM’s network of 22 specialized dental clinics throughout Israel which specialize in treating people with disabilities. AKIM will offer ongoing employment guidance and job placement services to graduates, who will also have the option of working in other AKIM] [non-dental clinics throughout the country

AKIM was founded in 1951 and strives to promote quality of life and improve the welfare of people with Intellectual disabilities and their relatives. They currently work throughout Israel to serve 35,000 people and 140,000 family members.

Sumareva dreams of bringing both specialized clinics for people with disabilities and a dental training program like the one at Tel Aviv University to the United States.

The issue of lack of adequate dental care for people with disabilities has been in the news a lot in recent weeks:

To address this problem, in 2012 the Commission on Dental Accreditation mandated that all dental students learn to assess the treatment needs of people with disabilities. And New York University recently open the N.Y.U. College of Dentistry’s Oral Health Center for People with Disabilities. It will both offer exceptional care for patients with a wide range of disabilities, and it will provide dentists with necessary skills and experience for treating patients with disabilities. Dr. Ronald Kosinski, the Center’s director, acknowledges the historical lack of adequate care for people with disabilities—and of negative attitudes toward people with disabilities. He is insistent that society begin to do a better job. “People are afraid of them,” he said. “They are not looked at like people. We need to train dental students to stop throwing their hands up and to start embracing them.”

Thanks to AKIM and Tel Aviv University, important efforts are already underway in Israel for training dental students and people with disabilities, and attitudes are changing. The United States and other countries can surely benefit from Israel’s experiences thus far.

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Smiling With Hope Pizza
Lakeridge Pointe Shopping Center
6135 Lakeside Drive #101
Reno, NV 89511
Store: 775-825-1070
Home: 775-502-3004
Website: smilingwithhopepizza.com

Name of contact/founders: Walter and Judy Gloshinski

“Smiling With Hope Pizzeria is a pizza store modeled on the small family pizzerias/Italian cafes Walter grew up with. Walter’s mother and her family were great cooks from Italy and he became fascinated with their dishes as a young child.  His passion for NY pizza is going on 60 years! For 22 years Walter created award winning pizzeria/bakery businesses in CA/TX/OH public schools that trained students with disabilities for competitive work.  Their mission continues with the Smiling with Hope Pizzeria which trains and employs people with developmental disabilities.”

Smiling with Hope is in the Yelp top 100 restaurants in the USA, was recently named the best pizza in Nevada by TIME and MONEY magazines and MSN.  They were also recently called “the greatest little pizzeria in America” by Paulie Gee, owner of Paulie Gee’s Pizza Brooklyn.

The Visit:

I was greeted by Josh, a worker with disabilities who said, “Welcome to Smiling with Hope Pizza—would you like a menu?”  A steady flow of customers came in during my visit at lunch time and a doctor in scrubs, with his father and two children sat at a table and shared their experience.  Walter and Judy, the owners, shared their fascinating story of how and why these “free spirits” (he used the word “vagabonds with no money”) started a pizza store where people with disabilities work and families with children of all ages with disabilities feel free to dine—even if their children are “messy” or have issues in the pizza store.  The two spoke to me while doing prep work, answering phone orders, and serving customers. Much of Walter’s very direct wording is captured below—he has very strong feelings about “the system” and how it often fails people with disabilities.

Walter’s Extremely Interesting Journey and Reason for Starting the Business:

Walter notes that he grew up in South Orange, NJ and was a “terrible student with no interest in academics,” despite his father being a Wharton (U Penn business school) graduate.  “My father was a VP of United Trust down on Wall Street for 30 years but if you met him, you’d think he was a plumber. He just wanted to be left alone so he never taught us anything about the future, so I came out of the gate as a musician and played music all over the world…”

Walter has many talents and interests.  He is a musician who sings, and mainly plays guitar and harmonica.  As he reflects on what got him interested in the field of disabilities, he identifies two things:  He describes having a cousin with Down Syndrome who was ten years older than him. “He was older than me but seemed younger.  It confused me. It bothered me.” He notes, “Throughout my life, I kept getting at cross roads and intersections with people with special needs.”   In addition, looking back on a childhood experience during a parade, he remembers a “guy with a band uniform with a bass drum, cymbals and trumpet on the back walking on the sidewalk making his own music—and it was clear he had some type of special need.  And I thought to myself, oh, what is that?… It always attracted me for unknown reasons. Now, I know the reasons. These people can’t navigate the system. They have no abstract thinking which is needed to make decisions. They need people like us to help them.  If not, they will make wrong decisions.”

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, Walter and band were based in Austin, TX. It was during that time that he decided to enter the field of special education, first by serving as an aide in a high school self-contained classroom for students with cognitive disabilities.  

“That inspired me—after two and a half years, I decided I needed to go to college, because I had a goal.”  He was in his 30s when he decided to begin college at Texas State University, where he studied special education.  After graduating, Walter moved to California, since this is where he had his wife had spent some time in the early 80s.  

“I got in the self-contained classroom, I saw their abilities (he is referring to their challenges) and that they will never compete in any sort of academic based job.”   He decided he wanted his students to work. “I used my culinary skills which I had been around all my life–my mother and her family came from Italy. Even when I was playing music, I knew if I needed money, I could work in food service or a bakery or something—it pays more than digging ditches in the hot summer.  When I hit the schools, I used my culinary skills to create products that were better than anything that was available in the area. I created a functional, life curriculum. I finagled a home economics room and we made and sold food at school!” Once you have a business, it opens up everything you need to succeed in life.”

Walter’s ultimate decision to open the pizza store in Reno was the result of seeing what he describes as a familiar pattern in special education programs in several states.   “After 10 years in California, they decided these kids are going to college–even though they can’t do six plus six, so we retreated. It is like saying this oil can (pointing to a can of oil in his restaurant) can go to college if you teach it right—it is a big sham because society is not willing to face the fact that people with moderate to severe cognitive disabilities will never compete with non-disabled people in academic occupations.”   

Walter didn’t think this made sense and moved to Ohio where he could be closer to his family.    “All of my moves were based on my programs getting world-wide recognition—and getting ruined by the schools.   It is denial in our society. Everything, every illness (cold, broken leg, etc.) has a time frame for healing in our culture—if we don’t have a time frame, we just wash our hands of it and make believe it is not there.”  

Walter reports that he found a school district in Ohio, “all guided by the universe, God, whatever you want to call it—I follow my heart, it led us to this little town in Ohio.”  The school district was in the process of building a new high school. “I convinced them all to build my self-contained classroom for students with moderate cognitive disabilities as a commercial kitchen so then it would become a real business.  And that was the Smiling With Hope Bakery! We served up to 11,000 people a week in a 2,000 square foot commercial kitchen, adjacent to the cafeteria. They basically told me I could run the program but the funding was zero. I didn’t get one dime.  So I had to create everything. When I left, we were earning more than the band, the music and the athletics put together—we were the top earners. We ran it with 15 students—the most behavior challenged students and the most behavior challenged parents!”

Walter’s successful experience in Ohio included partnering with Bon Apetit food, which served the food at Denison University. His group created a healthy cookie, in conjunction with the Amish, which used organic wheat flours, and was in accordance in with that state’s wellness law.   “That’s where we sold tons—frozen cookies public schools could heat up and I finagled this space to be a business.”

I was able to do this for 9 years but a new direction was presented at the beginning of my 10th year.  The Smiling With Hope Bakery was going to be discontinued and academic remediation was the new course. “That was in August at the start of the school year.  I refused to be a babysitter and we bought a house in Reno. When the mortgage was approved in October (four years ago). We packed and moved!”

I started my teaching career in Texas with gang kids with learning disabilities.  I began cooking with them. Problems decreased and attendance increased. This was my first bump with the system. No Child Left Behind was created and it was decided they were going to go to college yet they couldn’t pass a 3rd grade test.  So we moved to California and I retreated to a self-contained class for students with moderate cognitive disabilities—until school officials decided they were going to college and they couldn’t pass a 3rd grade test.  Then we retreated to a self-contained in Ohio and started the Smiling With Hope Bakery, until school officials said they were going to do academics and go to junior college. The only step I could take was to stay self-contained (severely disabled) and just do tube feeding, etc—they are 24/7 care and it was not my calling. I ran out of options. In November, 2015, I decided to quit my 23 year fight with public schools and we moved to Reno and opened Smiling With Hope Pizza in January, 2016.  Now free to create our own universe of success for people with disabilities.”

Walter further criticizes the lack of perseverance and approach on the part of the school system.  “You know what they did? One of our employees, Larry, (self contained classroom) came in the pizzeria and didn’t know what we were about—and the parents say all Larry  talks about in their IEP meeting is working with us. The teacher thought it was volunteer work. I said no He is making $15 to $18 an hour working here and we want to hire Larry as the dishwasher every night. They say, ‘We just found Larry a job for $10 an hour ten hours a week at Diller’s Warehouse and that’s going to be a better future for him. I said, lady, get out of here—you are whacked!’    Same—with our other boy, Tyson who is high functioning MR and also in Larry’s class. He greets, mops, cleans—he worked with us almost whole time we were here and wanted to hire him 35 hours a week. His mother is cognitively delayed and the school officials convinced them our pizzeria wasn’t letting him reach his potential so they got him another job at Dillard’s Warehouse, ten hours a week, $10 an hour—well, he doesn’t work there anymore.  Here, we would have him for life, make connections with the community so when we retire he would have lots of contacts for work. He left our job which would have paid him $18 and hour for 35 hours a week, supported, for that job. People with cognitive disabilities self-destruct all the time without continual professional support because the adult world is so complicated for them to navigate. All these teachers want to do is put on the end of year report they found two people jobs and could care less about these people.  What other explanation is there for such decisions?

“The most frustrating thing is that we are not dealing with oil cans but with souls. We need to find the things they can do and build programs around this to maximize success and quality of life as adults, since they are identified at 3, and schools have them 18 years, this can happen.  But sadly schools mostly babysit them! Today they come to me with no vocational skills, poor hygiene… I look at the Cognitively Impaired population from a data perspective. I look at what has worked historically and what has not worked. Academic training does not work. Parental denial is often very strong and schools accommodate this. Unfortunately the world does not create a meaningful life for its citizens.  Each individual has to create this and since they are not able to compete with non disabled people for academic jobs most wallow in nothingness.   When the family can no longer care for them they end up in group homes which often are in the worst part of towns and the caregivers are marginal at best.

Walter’s successful experience in Ohio included partnering with Bon Apetit food, which served the food at Denison University. His group created a healthy cookie, in conjunction with the Amish, which used organic flours, and was in accordance in with that state’s wellness law.   “That’s where we sold tons—frozen cookies they could heat up—and it was all created in my commercial kitchen classroom space—I finagled this space to be a business.” It was then that Walter experienced the same pattern. Just after NBC News correspondent, Maria Shriver (her mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, was a sister of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Ted Kennedy) did a news story on the program, “they said things were changing.”  Walter was told there was going to be a shift away from vocational training and back to academics. There would be eight periods of academics and only one of vocational training. “I said no!” reports Walter. “That was in August of the school year about to start in October (four years ago). We had bought this house in Reno and moved!”

“That has been my battle for 23 years,” reports Walter, summarizing his career.  “Awards and disciplinary actions. I was pushed out of ed—had no place to go because the community always supports what I do but the system doesn’t want to do what it really takes to train these people for maximum independence as adults.  Supervisors love to take photos with me but don’t like me because I work around them due to their laziness and stupidity. They would have to work harder to really teach the skills needed for success.”

Despite all of the frustrations and difficult systemic issues Walter has spelled out above, he notes that the business is doing well, he hopes to expand via selling his recipes, procedures, to others, and he recommends that others consider entering into similar businesses if they have a product or service that is in demand and have the skills to train and work with people with disabilities.  Some businesses would want to hire people with disabilities but they have no idea of how to work with them thus are afraid to try it. But he offers disclaimers. “I recommend others do it BUT have to be willing to lose money! Capitalism is a solo thing, not a communal way of living! If I can hire Shelly, the college student interviewed below, at $15/hour and she can do 50 tasks at speed 10, why hire Larry the autistic guy who can do only dishes, on speed 3?  If we are busy, I can’t ask Larry to come up here and do X (answer phone, cut pizza)-a for profit business person would never hire these people. In capitalism, you want to get the most out of paying the least.”   Walter stresses that “it is important to create a product that is better than the other products out there that you are in competition with (if you have a place like this and crappy pizza, they won’t come).”  He feels his training and hiring model applies to any business that requires repetitive manual labor and would love to see more pizzerias, landscaping, horticulture, quilt making, etc. Walter would love to see better housing so employees can live closer and he would like to own a van so he can arrange for more efficient transportation.  He would even love to offer paid vacations like cruises and trips to Disneyland for his employees. In closing, Walter says, “Like in the Blues Brothers movie, I am on a mission from God!”

Interviews with Employees:

Josh Raymond-Greeter (a person with disabilities): “four months here so far; found job by moving here, found this place on FB, came in one day to see if they were hiring.  Lives with my sister after move from California. 38 years old (was working doing piece work at a warehouse before—didn’t pay much, I like this job better.   I like the handing out the menus, greeting people, nice people to work with. I take the bus, door to door, which is a lot easier for me compared to city bus.  Works 3 days, 6 hours. Other hobbies/activities—Special Olympics, art class; I am not yet friends with the other workers–I am a little shy. I make boxes, do the spices, gives out menus, folds towels, and do dressing prep.   Josh has been with us over a year now and works 4 days a week with us. He is walking a mile a day with his walker to and from the pizzeria and has become a familiar face to customers. He is a valued member of our staff and his gift of kindness touches everyone he meets.  

Shelley Thomas-employee:

Student at university entering senior year—accounting and film studies (found job on university job listing).  30 hours/week. From Vegas. Most of her contact with people with disabilities is in passing. “I help them out if they need.”   (Walter adds, “This is work, a real business—the pizza maker doesn’t interact with the dishwasher unless we need dishes!”

Lessons Learned/Observations/Advice:

–Transportation is an ongoing problem-public transit problem is difficult and the ride share, ACCESS, is unreliable, often causing the client to wait for extended periods of time and arrive early or late.

—The school district should be better preparing clients for the world of work, focusing on hygiene/self-care, job readiness, flexibility to take jobs assigned without complaint, travel training (Uber, etc)

-Don’t decide (or let school district decide) for person and family what is better option and what is meaningful—must decide what is “good work’ for that person (there ae many factors to consider)

-Co-workers on the job site, including those with disabilities are often the best trainers and job coaches (“I make my employees the job coach.  Larry knows how to wash dishes. He doesn’t talk, that is fine. They pick it up fairly quickly…”)

-It is very costly and difficult to make a profit in these types of businesses.  You need to have a superior product and also recognize that workers are usually not equipped to do more than one or two jobs (whereas a neurotypical person who makes pizzas can pitch in to answer phones or go out on a delivery, a person with a disability can likely do the one job he/she is taught).

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Big Al’s Best
Milpitas, CA 95035
Website: https://big-als-best.com/
Name of contact: mother, Joanna Jaeger and son, Alex “Big Al” Jaeger
Phone: 408-946-1609

“many different jobs in small chunks-including garden store, serving lunch at a senior citizen center, work in a food pantry, making toffee and creating/calligraphing greeting cards”

Brief description of “business:” 

Most sites visited in this research study represented a “type” of business, including cafes, a car wash, t-shirt company, sock company, a doll re-sale store, etc. What is unique about Big Al’s is that it is actually a collection of many things. In mother, Joanna’s words, “It is a collection of activities I have pulled together for my son in his adult life,” including a more “traditional job” one day a week job at Orchard Supply Hardware (sweeps, waters plants, takes cob webs down), volunteer work at a senior center serving lunches, and working in a food pantry. Al and his mom also make and sell toffee treats out of their home kitchen; they also make greeting cards (which they sell to local stores on consignment), and they do calligraphy for cards. In addition to the toffee and cards, Alex can also do small jobs like paper shredding, making deliveries, labeling or stamping bags. He does his best when he works for short amounts of time (1-2 hours) and most of the time has the support of a parent or support staff so they can be pretty flexible and look for many little opportunities around their community.

Reason for this approach to work:

Mother, Joanna observes, “Once school ends, there can be almost nothing —waiting lists, no programs, they just go to the food courts to hang out or sitting in front of computer or video games all day.” She tried to continue with as much structure as possible even after school ended. To be sure that he had something to get up for and to do every day. Jobs, volunteer work, household chores, working out at the gym, all were put on the weekly schedule so he would know what to expect. She notes her son’s strengths and his ability to “do things in small chunks.” Mom felt he can do a lot but an 8-hour work day wasn’t for him. Many programs focus on the goal of full time employment and meaningful independence but those goals are a bit out of reach for Alex.   Joanna says her plan has been to focus on “micro local things” since geography and traffic and transportation can huge issues in Silicon Valley.

One idea she has is to create a work force of people like her son who can go in to local small businesses a few hours per week to do things like shredding, filing, sweeping, picking up lunch orders, running errands like going to the post office, and other task-oriented jobs-.  She notes that there are many businesses clustered in one area (a strip mall or office complex) where there might be lots of little jobs that no one is really competing for. Lots of places have those kinds of jobs.  They can go and become a support crew for all the businesses.   If disbursed, one to each business, each employer gets to know the person and his or her capabilities.”  A support person could probably provide support and transportation for a small group of individuals with disabilities and maybe some of those people might end up being hired directly by one of the businesses they support.

How did business start?  (According to website):

“Big Al’s Best was started by Joanna Jaeger to create an opportunity for her son, Alex, to have meaningful work and activities to fill his adult life. Alex is a young man with autism who makes delicious toffee and creates greeting cards and artwork that features his beautiful calligraphy. (Their first product, Dark Chocolate Almond Toffee is made in their home kitchen under their Cottage Food Operation (CFO) license.)
Alex has always had beautiful printing so we decided to expand our products to include greeting cards and art work in addition to the toffee, that features his beautiful calligraphy.
One of the most important parts of this venture is the opportunity it gives us to connect to our community and share Alex’s talents. We have partnered with over a dozen local shops who carry the cards and art work.”

Number of employees: 1

Business Structure/Payment of Employee: Business is set up in mom’s name and it is a family business.  Alex is paid when he completes small tasks

Description of Visit/Interview with mother:  I met Joanna at the senior citizens’ multi-service center near their home in Milpitas, CA.  We met in the garden as Alex, age 25, prepared to serve lunch to the participants who were mostly elderly Asians.  After the interview, I observed Alex in the kitchen, met his job coach, Kelly, then walked across the street to observe the garden store where Alex works an additional day per week.

Joanna was engageable, likeable, forthcoming and very willing to share her experiences and observations.  She shared many lessons learned and expressed a willingness to connect with other parents and business owners involved in similar ventures.  She notes that her past professional training was useful in her work with her son.  “I was a training manager—I know how to do task analysis (think about how we can break down a job or create a system or procedure that will allow him to do it independently)

Lessons Learned/Observations: 

-this array of work experiences help connect Alex to the community (she recounted a story when they were out for pizza and people she had never met came up to Alex to say hi)

-working in shorter, 2-4 hour chunks, are right for Alex and also give Joanna flexibility and respite

-She has found it helpful when looking for job coach/support staff to advertise for a Personal/Family Assistant rather that looking for someone with specific disability experience.  This has allowed them to meet a broader range of people and build variety and flexibility into Alex’s program.

-Basic self-care and management (toileting, hygiene, following simple instructions, not running off) are important to get in place as you prepare your child for employment and other community participation. These simple things can be real barriers to success if not addressed early.

-Really focus on all the things your child CAN do.  So many systems and supports are focused on deficits and needs so sometimes it is hard to shift gears to bring attention to your child’s strengths.  Do an inventory of all the little things they can do, household chores, computer skills, etc. and also note their characteristic that would make them a valued employee or volunteer like attention to detail, reliability, desire to please, etc.  You know your child better than anyone.

-Look at school and in your neighborhood for the little jobs that no one wants to do or don’t get around to.  Each individual task is a job (set up chessboards for one of the teachers in his old school; filed sheet music for music teacher).  Friends and neighbors bring us bags of their papers that need shredding and we charge them $10/bag. Does a dog need walking or plants need watering?  Household chores can translate into jobs outside the home.

-We all need to feel we are making a contribution, have a sense of purpose and awareness of “How am I helping.”   We don’t need to be focused on making our child happy, better to give them an opportunity to contribute to have meaning and purpose in their daily lives. She cites the work of Dr. Peter F. Gerhardt at the EPIC School in Paramus, NJ (http://www.epicschool.org/about-epic/), noting the importance of children learning manners early on or this will be in obstacle to employment.  “Our kids are great but when in the work place, a big issue is that they don’t have very good manners or basic social graces—this may seem like a minor issue but it is huge.”

-Many employers might want to hire people with disabilities but are afraid and need to be encouraged and prepared and supported.  Sometimes minor changes in a workplace can make a huge difference in their ability to be successful. Joanna points out that we wouldn’t fire a typical employee for such a behavior or for a “small mistake” like spilling coffee on someone while serving (Alex never has, but others have done this).  Sometimes the reaction is, if a person with disabilities makes a mistake, we never let them have the opportunity to do it again.  I, for one, have burned garlic bread many times!  You would never say I am never allowed to use oven anymore!

-Just do it!  Wherever you go every day (i.e. small businesses), scope it out, talk to people…find or create a job! There are small business owners may have jobs they are not getting to.  The “gig economy” opens up some of these possibilities.  One thing that inspired me was a YouTube video—about a profoundly disabled young man—he was an errand boy for his neighborhood—he went to each shop, and said, “Hello, do you need anything? “ (Post office, pick up dry cleaning… (concierge type services) He became a welcomed and valued part of the community with many people who cared about him and gave him opportunities to be helpful. Maybe even approach your local Chamber of Commerce to see if you can talk to local business leaders about the possibility of giving your child an opportunity to work. Volunteering in the community is a great way to build skills and develop relationships. Churches, parks and recreation programs, non-profits and schools are all good places to look.

[Addendum: “A few things have changed since you were out last summer. Alex’s paid job at the garden center ended because the company closed all the stores. When we learned that was happening I approached the staff at the Senior Center and our local Parks and Rec and said that Alex would have some more volunteer time available if anyone needed any extra help. They ALL responded enthusiastically and now Alex volunteers at the community preschool, the Sports Center, the Teen Center and the Library! I was so pleased at the response and he is now doing even more and interesting little tasks throughout the week.”]

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Rising Tide Car Wash
2970 N SR-7
Margate, FL 33063 (also, Parkland, FL)
Name of Founder/Owner: John D’Eri and Thomas D’Eri
(754) 307-2197

“two car washes in South Florida (Margate and Parkland) which employ 72 people with disabilities out of a total of 92 workers. Started by a father and brother of a person with autism. Father has been a life-long entrepreneur. In addition, Rising Tide U is an online course which ‘provides road maps for entrepreneurs who wish to start businesses that empower individuals with autism through gainful employment.”

Brief description of business:  Two car washes in chain which washes 500 cars a day, 150,000 a year.  Thomas’ brother and John’s son, Andrew has autism. Andrew was on a waiting list for job training when Thomas and family realized, “he will have no opportunities unless we do something!’  Thomas studied business as an undergraduate and his father is a successful lifelong entrepreneur. Thomas figured, “Either the business will work or I will have a great story to tell when I apply to graduate school!”  

How did it start and grow?

It started with a business plan. They surveyed the area and considered such businesses as a cleaners and a juice shop. They ultimately decided on a car wash. They felt a car wash in South Florida, on a road with many stores, had potential for success as a business. They would then find a way to incorporate people with disabilities in to the businesses. As is noted in the “lessons learned” section below, this systemic, research-based approach is very different from some businesses started by “desperate parents” who felt they were running out of time in finding a job for their child. Rising Tide Car Wash has expanded to include the tuition-based Rising Tide U online learning program and the Autism Advantage podcast which has been broadcasting two years and featuring interviews with entrepreneurs who have started similar businesses.

Typical Hours, Compensation, Growth Within the Company:

There are 92 total employees at the two carwashes and 72 have autism. Hours are flexible, ranging from 4 to 9 for all jobs. Starting pay is $8.43 plus tips, which average $2-3 per hour. After a year, there is an opportunity for a merit-based raise to an average of $10/hour. Some people with disabilities are promoted to managers after demonstrating competence in such aspects of the job as using tools for fixing things like broken vacuums.

Lessons Learned/Observations:  

-Do research before opening to determine if business model is likely to succeed

-Don’t start a business out of desperation.  “In this community, entrepreneurship is not traditional entrepreneurship, but desperate entrepreneurship—parents feel forced into it because they feel it is the only solution, and not necessarily based on best practices (as an example, they may say, “my daughter loves candlemaking,” and may move to start a business before seeing if it is a viable option).  It may not be sustainable. Go through rigorous testing to see if it is viable. Find the most financially viable community business and weave autism in to it. Thomas reports that they looked for a “good market, it will differentiate us from others, Andrew can do it, and has good margins.” [Thomas notes that they considered other businesses before settling on a car wash—laundry and dry cleaning, and juices and smoothies as both were entry level and process orientated).  In addition, he notes, “a brother is way more objective than a parent.  “it is not emotional for me. I approach it like a business person. I can look at it more holistically.”

Don’t start a business just because this seems to be the only thing the PwD likes and can do.  (Professor Temple Grandin often says, “We tend to make it ok for our loved one with autism to do their special interest since this is the only activity they have experienced.” Thomas notes, “I learned this and experienced it and it struck a chord.”

-“We underestimated the complexity of the business model we started”—it often takes 3-7 years from the time a person options the property until the doors are open.  [It took Rising Tide 3 years!]. There are things to consider like environmental regulations and other laws.

-There is a need for systematic learning about how to start and run a business:   following media attention after the first few years in business, there were many “inbound questions” from families asking “how do you do it?’  Rising Car Wash turned to the Center for Autism Related Disabilities at the University of Miami and asked them to write a grant, which they received from the Taft Foundation.  They started Rising Tide U and thus far, 18 who have taken the course have started businesses, resulting in 120 jobs created for PwD.

-a “Subscription Model” where people pay for tools as opposed to an entire course may be a useful next step for Rising Tide U.

-There are not a lot of “best practices” out there in the field (there is a need to boil it down to “best dos and don’ts”)

-Funders no longer want to fund social enterprises since there are so many failures.  They now want to pilot programs at bigger, more established companies.

-There are completive advantages to hiring people with autism (see “7 Autism Advantages here:  http://risingtideu.com/; also, listen to Autism Advantage podcasts).  We need to help businesses understand the business advantages of hiring people with autism.  

-Offer flexible hours (at Rising Tide Car Wash, people work between 4 and 9 hours).  

-It is an interesting time for disabilities employment because the unemployment rate is so low.   Studies are saying entry level jobs ae the hardest to fill now.

-We are aware of issues around Social Security; we sometimes refer people to a benefits planner.  (some take a “hit” on Social Security, but are fine as long as they don’t lose Medicaid benefits).

-We have learned that some of our employees with disabilities from lower income families are the primary breadwinners in their families.

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