Individuals living on the autism spectrum have a friend in Hopewell Valley Vineyards.
Nestled inside a warehouse on a hill overlooking rows of grapevines and the stone winery is a lab designed specifically for adults on the spectrum. Participants in the program can learn an array of occupational skills while earning a wage.
Svein Aage Hansen, program leader, oversees the team. Hansen says the program began five years ago with a young man assembling wine boxes, and has naturally evolved into a group of other tasks centered around the philosophy of upcycling and recycling.
The A-Team is the brainchild of Hansen and vineyard owners, Sergio and Violetta Neri. The Neris’ youngest son, Davide, was diagnosed with autism at a young age, and Hansen has worked with the family and Davide for several years. Together, the trio brainstormed ways to help the underserved adults in the autistic community.
“Our youngest son has autism, so we’ve always been involved in that world. Since we have the vineyard, we thought that it would be beneficial to individuals with autism to work in a more protected environment, but have the space and possibility to learn some skills, build things and to participate in the community,” Sergio Neri said.
On a brisk autumn day, four employees joked and talked during their break. David Giardino, a supervising team member, has been employed by the program the longest. He gently reminded a colleague to offer his right hand for a handshake during introductions. A sense of camaraderie was apparent between the small group of young men as the team proudly offered a tour of their grounds and the different work they accomplish there.
HVV finances the A-Team program which recycles community and vineyard objects into reusable resources or art. One of their bestselling products is kindling boxes, which are used as firestarters in wood fireplaces.
Neri reached out to Pennington Borough and local landscapers and tree services and offered to take the mulch from their brush collection. Neri said it’s an arrangement that was beneficial to everyone involved.
Before, the brush had to be driven to a distant site. Through a multistep process, the A-Team dries the mulch and packages it into kindling boxes. These are available for purchase at Pennington Market, Rosedale Mills, Chance on Main, Etsy and at the winery.
Neri and Hansen say the team also weighs, bags and labels firewood for sell in burlap sacks, grinds and packages flour, plants and grows trees for resale, and uses woodworking tools to create artwork and home decor.
“Now to mix up things and not to spend too much time on one product with all the guys, we started woodworking. Again, we use recycled materials, pieces of board that we find or people give to us, and we started messing around and making different flags,” Hansen said. “So far we’ve made five American flags and they all sold. Basically, we’re teaching the guys to use hand tools to cut the pieces, to use electric screwdrivers, to paint the boards, to put everything together,” Hansen said.
A Greek flag had just received its finishing touches, and a German flag awaited a final coat of paint. In an adjacent workroom, smaller designs were in various stages of finish.
“I’ve been doing some candle holders. I just sanded and finished it,” Alan Huse, team member, said while holding up an lovely arch designed to hold five tealight candles. “We’ll be putting this on Etsy.”
Huse explained that the candle holders have a natural curve because the wood is reclaimed from recycled wine barrels. “Here’s a piece before it had anything done to it. Some are already a color, but some have a grey line where the hoops were.”
Hansen said a goal of the program is to give adults with a range of ability levels the opportunity to complete the work. To achieve this, Hansen is teaching workers with more defined skillsets to supervise and assist colleagues who require more support.
“Alan came with a lot of skills and knowledge about tools and equipment. One of the goals is for Alan to become a leader, so he can supervise some of the other guys who need a little bit more support. That’s David’s job, too,” Hansen said.
Along with candleholders and wooden flags, A-Team members also create shelves, towel racks and toilet paper holders. The selection can vary based on what the team has available to repurpose. Handcrafted artwork can be purchased online at Etsy by searching the site using the term ProjectAutism.
“We are trying to create an environment where everyone feels welcome, comfortable, safe. We don’t have quotas. It’s relaxed and lowkey. It’s a social unit and team,” Hansen said.
Hansen also said that Ari Schulman has never taken a sick day. Ari beamed and explained that on his days off, he enjoyed spending time with his parents, but he also enjoys coming to work. He had worked in a restaurant prior to being hired by the A-Team, and found farmwork much more satisfying.
“I like the kindling boxes,” Schulman said, “I like cleaning. I like it all. I like it here.”
The team chooses what they want to work on each day from a list comprised by Hansen. Giardino, Schulman, and a young man training for a job in town, bundled, packaged, weighed and labeled firewood, while Huse decided to work independently at the flour mill.
“We grow wheat in our field here. Sergio and Violetta use the flour for the pizza-making at the winery. Sergio is experimenting with bread recipes. Whatever we don’t use for the winery, we can actual have the guys package and sell, so we might get into the flour-selling business also,” Hansen said.
‘We did it out of the passion to help the community of individuals with autism.’
Hansen said that the one of the most important aspects of the model was to create an integrated. The A-Team isn’t a place for people with disabilities to work that is hidden away.
“It’s integrated. That’s the key part. This is our designated area, but the other workers on the farm use this space, so we interact with them on a daily basis. Trucks from the township dump their wood chips and they are waving. It’s not hidden away. In my opinion that is the best part of it. It’s a real job in a real farm environment,” Hansen said.
“It’s thanks to the attitude of the family (the Neris) this is possible. They are very generous and very supportive. We haven’t broken even, so all the cost is on the family,” said Hansen.
Neri was unconcerned that the A-Team was not yet producing enough revenue to cover the cost of operations. He said that he feels optimistic that it will in time as they get better at advertising products.
“We did it out of the passion to help the community of individuals with autism. Our goal is to break even. Even in normal business it is hard to break even. It took me a good five or six years to get going well at the vineyard,” Sergio said.
Hopewell Valley Vineyards is committed to using the success of their farm to create opportunities for people on the autism spectrum. The Neris import a wine from Northern Italy and bottles it at the vineyard under the name Solicino Pinot Grigio. The special pinot grigio is sold at select Mercer County restaurants, liquor stores and grocers. All of the profits benefit autism programs and research. They hope to expand sales of the wine nationally to generate funds for the cause.
Neri is planning to build a small, residential setting for people with autism. He is working with Hopewell Township to use township land that runs contiguous to the farm for the group home. Neri said the home will be small, housing up to six residents with Autism, who will live with an individual or couple. Neri said that he wants the group home to reflect the values of a traditional home setting where people share meals and daily interactions.
“Residential places for people with autism are very limited. We consider ourselves lucky to have more means, maybe, than the average person. If you have an kid with autism as a parent, and you’re aging, you start getting really worried about the future of your child when you’re too old to take care of or help. Main concern of a parent with a child with autism. Residential settings and placements is critical. We want to expand into that, too,” said Sergio.
More information about the A-Team and Project Autism is available on the Hopewell Valley Vineyard’s website. Donations and volunteer information are also available on the website.