Holiday Shortbread Goes a Long Way for Young Adults With Autism

Over 35 percent of young adults with autism have not held a paying job nor enrolled in college after leaving high school, according to a 2012 national study conducted by Dr. Paul Shattuck.

Have Dreams, a local autism resource organization with locations in Evanston and Park Ridge, is working to change those statistics. The organization is doing it through Have Dreams Academy, its new autism-specific workplace training program.

The program, which was developed through a collaborative effort of neighbors, helps young adults with autism attain the job skills and training they need to become competitively employed.


Forming a Partnership

Jean Kroll is the owner of ILOVESWEETS commercial bakery, which is located just down the street from Have Dreams’ Evantson location. Kroll says she was introduced to Have Dreams by the bakery’s landlord.

“We started talking about whether there would be an opportunity to put a for-profit business and a non-for-profit business together to create some sort of a training program and then create jobs for people who really didn’t have a lot of job opportunities in the marketplace,” Kroll says.

In the summer of 2014, Have Dreams piloted its program at ILOVESWEETS with great success. All three of the initial Have Dreams Academy participants were offered part-time employment after completing a summer internship. One of them was a young man named Drew, who was offered a job at ILOVESWEETS.

“I was proud,” Drew says, describing how he felt receiving the job offer. “I immediately accepted it.”

Drew looks comfortable and focused as he completes one of his work tasks, labeling the bakery’s various toffees, brownies and cakes.

“It suits the kind of work I like to do,” Drew says. “I clean trays, I sleeve, I label with stickers. I like to expand myself a little bit—it’s not just the same job every day.”

Bobbi Goldman, director of development at Have Dreams, says the program has changed the lives of its participants.

“We talked to one of the participant’s mothers and she said that his level of confidence has skyrocketed,” Goldman says. “His ability to communicate, his confidence, his level of responsibility, it all changed dramatically.”

Kroll says that by the end the year they expect the program’s participants to be placed in competitive employment positions.

A Gift You Can Feel Good About

This holiday season, Have Dreams and ILOVESWEETS bakery are selling an award-winning shortbread made from an 80-year-old family recipe.

MAD-have-dreams-shortbread-cookies“It’s a gift people can feel good about,” Goldman says. “We thought it would be nice to take one of the products that they were working with and packaging, and sell it.”

Have Dreams Academy interns assemble the holiday tins that are filled with the bakery’s chocolate chip and original shortbread.

“A portion of the sales of each tin go back to Have Dreams and it circles around again,” Kroll says.

The cookies can be purchased at both of Have Dreams’ locations in Evanston and Park Ridge or ordered online here. Tins cost $15.

Success on Many Levels

While the collaboration has proven to be successful from the perspective of the Have Dreams participants and their families, Kroll says there is success from a business perspective as well.

The Coleman Foundation provided Have Dreams Academy with a $125,000 grant to support the development of a manufacturing curriculum and job assessment tools. In addition, the grant supports the engagement of an intern from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, who analyzes the metrics of the program.

“We crafted the program; we brought in Kellogg to do metrics on the program and what we found is that we were right, that this was a great business decision,” Kroll says.

Kroll says that having a nonprofit neighbor gave them the opportunity to support philanthropy and gave Have Dreams an opportunity to see things from a business perspective.

“It’s allowed us both to become better, stronger organizations,” she says.

ILOVESWEETS and Have Dreams are now busy preparing for their next class of interns that will start in January 2015.