Though many of us complain about working, especially on Mondays, we know that we depend on our jobs. Besides providing a paycheck, it also provides much needed routine, and for those lucky enough, it’s a place where self-esteem is built, friendships are made, and personal growth occurs.
Unfortunately, for people living with intellectual and developmental disabilities such as autism, employment can be nearly impossible. To try to make a difference for people in that situation, the nonprofit We Make opened on Nov. 13 as “the world’s first workplace centered around autistic employees’ specific needs and abilities,” in the 40,000 sq. ft. former home of 84 Lumber in Pennington.
We Make founder Tony Lesenskyj has been preparing for his 20-year-old son Colin’s next birthday for years. Colin lives with autism and per the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act law, services provided through public schools end in an individual’s 21st year.
Like his peers in Hopewell Valley Regional School District’s Academic Essentials program, Colin has received job training through the district since age 17, but is still not ready to enter the traditional workforce. After age 21, individuals registered through the state’s Division of Developmental Disabilities can access additional job training, but such services are frequently less intensive and effective.
Lesenskyj knew Colin could work, and thrive while working, in the right kind of environment. So, he decided to create one.
Though Lesenskyj already had a job as the president and CEO of LMT Mercer Group, Inc., located in Lawrence Township, he started We Make, a contract manufacturing company able to accommodate up to 20 employees, with Colin’s needs in mind. Five interested students, ages 17-20, from HVRSD’s AE program were the first employees accepted into the program but in the future they could come from anywhere. Some employees will exit the training program once completed while others, hopefully by summer, will become permanent hires taking multiple work shifts.
Before the first day, program director Muhammad (Moe) Siddiqu and program manager Andrew Allshouse met with the students and the people who knew them best (i.e. parents, aunts, uncles, friends, respite workers) to learn skill sets, goals, motivators and interests.
Individualized work plans and motivational rewards were developed from those meetings.
Starting out slowly, one contract at a time, the daily schedule began at noon and ended at 2 p.m. Between those hours are three alternating blocks of work (about 30 minutes) and breaks (about 10 minutes). Their first job consisted of assembling four small universal brackets into plastic bags, heat sealing the bags, placing them in boxes, and stacking them for shipment. Breaks are spent playing basketball, video games, cornhole and other de-stressing activities.
People with developmental disabilities tend to have significant anxiety. That anxiety can lead to disruptions in the typical workday, to the point where work can’t continue. “At We Make,” Lesenskyj says, “there are no bad days.”
Individuals can be dropped off in the morning and picked up at 5 p.m., and parents and guardians don’t have to worry about getting a phone call asking them to come back and pick them up, Lesenskyj said. When those disruptions happen, individuals are allowed to do things like watch a movie in the TV room until they are ready to return to work — a loss of productivity most businesses cannot handle.
“Even with the biggest heart and biggest initiatives, employers can’t stop their business because they’re for profit. We are constantly reevaluating our processes as well as employee development,” Siddiqu said.
Individuals are encouraged to work for longer periods of time with fewer breaks and are taught how to handle disruptions in routine. Those who excel quickly are placed in team leadership roles, and are given data entry or product line tasks that typically require greater levels of skill.
For the AE students who struggle with any of the assembly steps, district paraprofessionals are on hand for one-to-one help, and if that’s not working, Allshouse investigates the process to see if changes can be made. For instance, Allshouse noticed that a student was having trouble opening the bracket bags, so he purchased a variety of bags to see which worked best. The issue was quickly resolved. In a typical company, the trainee most likely would have felt discouraged and not continued with the program or would have been let go by management.
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Joseph Genova, who enjoys weekly boys’ nights, working out at PEAC, and photographing friends and family, ages out of the school system this year. Though excited about his future, he’s sad that it is his last year with the district. His mother, Teresa Guerriero-Genova, said he liked the school routine and misses being a part of activities like the high school track team.
Since receiving a diploma with his graduating class two years ago, his days have consisted solely of job training. He has worked at such places as Wildflowers Restaurant, ARC Mercer, PEAC, Hopewell Elementary and Central High School.
He’s surpassed expectations at We Make. Not only are his assembly numbers the highest of his peers, he’s been assigned team leadership responsibilities. Despite his success, Genova’s says he’s not yet sure what he wants to do as a career.
“We Make is such a great opportunity,” said his mother. “I can’t even imagine anything better coming along. We’ve known (We Make) was in the works and the timing couldn’t be better. Mr. Lesenskyj is unbelievable. He’s a great person with great foresight. Everything was thought about from start to finish.”
We Make staff consider themselves to be in the “discovery phase.” They are focused on experimenting to find what works and what doesn’t. Among the unknowns are how many shifts employees can typically work and the type of contracts they’ll do best.
Since they are pioneers in uncharted territory, finding the right formula that produces employees who love coming to We Make and feel pride in what they do, while doing high quality work might take a little time.
Lesenskyj is eager to make progress because he knows that the more success they have at We Make, the more people they can help. “We want to replicate the model with other companies. We’ve had companies approach us and ask if they can start a “We Make” and I say, absolutely,” he said.
To learn more about We Make, visit their website at wemake.works, or call Muhammad Siddiqu, program director, at (609) 559-5096.