Friday, 22 February 2013 00:00
Their mission is simple: create employment opportunities for individuals whom may otherwise be deemed unemployable. Spectrum Designs Foundation is a nonprofit social enterprise that produces customized printed apparel, but is unique in that it is primarily staffed by teens and young adults with autism and developmental disabilities. An innovative program developed by The Nicholas Center for Autism in Port Washington, their effort highlights the dire need for purposeful employment creation and training in the local community. The center is named for Manhasset resident Stella Spankos’s son Nicholas.
According to the CDC, 1 in 88 individuals are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Autism is a lifelong neurological condition that affects the way one communicates, socializes and interacts with the world around them. It is not uncommon for many young people with autism to lead lives of isolation and seclusion.
Regardless of their “functioning level,” people on the autism spectrum often have difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, both of which are fundamental to social interaction. This has proven to be a tremendous barrier when seeking participation in the workforce.
Spectrum Designs steadily employs eight young people with autism who following training and some small accommodations have little to no difficulty in assisting in Spectrum’s print shop.
“Our employees assist us with all aspects of running our business, from the ordering and dispatch of the garments, to the prepping and the printing of the products” says Program Director Patrick Bardsley. “We tend to look at what a person can do, versus what they can’t. It’s about presuming competence and you have to keep raising the bar. We are always exploring new avenues to foster and maintain transferable employability skills that they can take with them no matter where they go.”
Their efforts have certainly not gone unnoticed, as Spectrum was recently nominated for Best Non Profit of Long Island 2013.
Spectrum Designs is also not alone in recognizing the urgent need for productive and meaningful opportunities for those with autism. The North Shore Autism Circle, a Manhasset-based, parent-run organization, awarded Spectrum Designs over $30,000 to purchase higher volume printing equipment, in an effort to assist Spectrum in increasing service capacity. The Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation, a national nonprofit founded by NFL legend Doug Flutie, awarded Spectrum $20,000 towards securing trained support staff for Spectrum’s employees with autism. They have also received over $5,000 from private funders who are donating toward Spectrum’s $100,000 expansion campaign goal, which is hoped to be realized by March 1, 2013.
“We are making every attempt to double our service capacity in the next two months, securing more facilities and equipment will allow us to produce more products and in turn, offer more work. We are overwhelmed by the generosity everyone has shown in getting us a step closer to that goal,” says Development Director Nicole Sugrue. “Spectrum’s vision is progressive and innovative, which certainly attracts numerous inquiries.
Our newest campaign is to expand our business model such that we could have more facilities and increase the number of employment opportunities to those who otherwise couldn’t secure it elsewhere.”
In addition to offering paid employment, Spectrum has also functioned as a training site to over 25 other individuals who have been able to learn pre-vocational skills and improve on their social, communication and work skills. Spectrum has already identified and begun negotiations for the additional space, which is only walking distance from their current location on Main Street in downtown Port Washington.
At the core of Spectrum’s mission is its dedication to staying person-centered and assisting those with special needs to become contributing members of society. “It is an exciting time here at The Nicholas Center for Autism and Spectrum Designs,” says co-Founder and CEO Stella Spanakos, the mother of the center’s namesake. “My son turns 21 in April and graduates from high school in June. I am elated that every vision I had for this center and so much more is becoming a reality for so many others like my Nicholas.”