Mission to Employ the Full Spectrum is an ‘Upstander’

Starbucks ‘Upstanders’ series includes a film about a South Florida family, who with UM’s help, founded a car wash company that employs people with autism.

What does it mean to be an “upstander?” According to Starbucks, upstanders make the kind of difference in their communities that the D’Eri family, who opened a car wash company that employs people with autism, is making in South Florida.

Debuting this month, Starbucks “Upstanders” series, a collection of 10 video stories about people from across the country who are engaging “in acts of compassion, citizenship, and civility,” includes the short film, “Employing the Full Spectrum.” The video, which explains  how and why John and Donna D’Eri founded Rising Tide Car Wash to give people like their son, Andrew, opportunities for employment and independence, includes an appearance by the autism expert they collaborated with: Michael Alessandri, clinical professor of psychology and executive director of the UM-NSU Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD).

“CARD has been working with the D’Eri family since they came to Florida and were eager to open a business and employ adults with autism,” said Alessandri, who is opening a new CARD office in Broward County today. “Starbucks contacted the family and said they wanted to feature them and how they are changing the conversation about employing people with disabilities. The D’Eri family then reached out to me asking if I would be interested in sharing my thoughts about their journey with Starbucks, and of course, I was happy to.”

Written and produced by Howard Schultz, Starbucks chairman and CEO, and Starbucks executive producer Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Upstanders series includes other inspiring stories that range from a former football player who helps wounded athletes heal to a community in Michigan collecting enough money to provide high-school students with college scholarships. The 10 videos, plus articles and audio podcasts, can be accessed on the Upstanders site.

Alessandri’s connection with the D’Eri family began five years ago when they arrived in South Florida from New York with a dream of opening a business where the majority of employees have autism. They joined Alessandri’s team in submitting a grant proposal designed to disseminate best practices in creating sustainable employment opportunities for adults on the autism spectrum. Their initiative, “Awakening Autism Entrepreneurs,” promotes the competitive advantages of autism in the workplace, and they are hopeful it will contribute to changing the conversation about the capabilities of people with autism.

The grant, funded by a private foundation, is allowing UM and Rising Tide to bring this critical message, along with the autism expertise of Alessandri and the business expertise of the D’Eris, to families and entrepreneurs around the country.

For Alessandri the goal is not to provide charity for people with autism, but opportunities for them to be independent. “I really believe in what Rising Tide is doing and their commitment to creating a positive movement about people with autism and their employability,” he said.

Currently, 80 to 90 percent of people with autism are either unemployed or underemployed in the workplace. Clinical research has shown that many people with autism function well in highly regimental systems with clear expectations and systematic processes and procedures. Where the average person becomes bored with repetition, people with autism may be more comfortable with the predictable nature of such work.

Along with the new grant, CARD is expanding its services in Broward County by opening a new branch office at Nova Southeastern University’s campus in Miramar, which will house CARD’s Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation Transition and Adult Programs. Currently, CARD has two main offices, one on UM’s Coral Gables campus and one at NSU in the Broward city of Davie. This Miramar branch brings CARD’s total branch offices to three, with additional sites in Homestead and Miami Lakes.

“It’s really important that we open this new office because it is situated in a location that will allow us to serve a more densely populated area where many of our families live,” said Alessandri. “The office will provide job training, social groups for adults and teenagers, and job clubs. It will also allow us to see more clients and expand our longstanding collaboration with NSU.”

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September 30, 2016