Workplace Inclusion Now continues to make strides in creating meaningful opportunities for the autistic community three years after pilot program launch

Joanna and her mom

The relationship between Autism Speaks and the Varnedoe Family began with a single phone call about fundraising opportunities surrounding a golf outing in support of their younger son, John, who is on the autism spectrum. Four years later, the relationship between the family and its family-run business, Lee Container, which was recently purchased by Greif, has grown exponentially.  

With nearly $200,000 raised for Autism Speaks and a steadfast commitment to supporting the organization’s workplace initiatives, starting with the implementation of the Workplace Inclusion Now (WIN) program in their Centerville, Iowa production facility, the family has been changing the landscape of inclusive hiring. Greif Vice President and General Manager Joel Varnedoe said the relationship his family has built with Autism Speaks over the past four years has led to a growing culture of camaraderie and inclusion among employees across the Greif/Lee company.  

Joanna standing in front of the Hawkeyes mascot

“We may have had some doubters early on with how that was going to work in the manufacturing facility, but once the training was received and we started placing some of those individuals within the plant, it really went off without a hitch. It brought the entire facility together and brought a positive impact to the business, both financially and emotionally. I think the thing I’m most proud of is that all the colleagues we’ve brought in through the WIN program are still with the company because we have created an inclusive work environment with people who aren’t afraid of change.” 

One of the people who have reaped the benefits of this budding relationship is Joanna C., star of Autism Speaks’ WIN video and highlighted in a featured profile during World Autism Month 2021. Joanna’s mom, Lisa, couldn’t be more appreciative of the opportunity for her daughter to work at the Centerville plant and feel like a valued member of society.  

“Joanna has become very social working at Lee, so that's a big plus in life. We are so grateful for Robert and Joel and everyone at Greif/Lee. We wish it came sooner, but who knew it was out there waiting for her this whole time? Sometimes the best things in life are worth the wait.” 

Not only has Joanna’s outgoing personality blossomed even more since starting her job, but her immense pride in her work as well as in her newfound role as an advocate for others in the autism community has reached new heights.  

Joanna at work

“We are thankful for Autism Speaks for opening her up to a whole new world! She has learned to be more of an adult in having conversations and will tell strangers that she is famous because of the attention she’s got from her Autism Speaks’ videos. She’ll tell her story to anyone who will listen.” 

With just one in five people with disabilities, including those with autism, employed, despite having the skillset and desire to work, Joanna’s vigor for her job is a glowing testimonial to the impact of WIN as vital professional development tool that can help improve career readiness and help build the skills to succeed in the workplace.  

“Joanna, she’s a rockstar. Honestly, I’ve had many conversations with her in the past, but one that always sticks out was when she told me why she takes her job so seriously. She said when she’s working at the end of the line and if she lets a bad bottle slip through cracks, it means her customer is going to receive a bad product and she won’t let that happen,” Joel said with a smile. “Right there I told her, ‘Joanna, I wish we had 100 more people like you because you’re so focused and care about the work you’re doing.’ She’s truly engaged in the work she’s doing and I’m proud she’s such a big part of our team. We have WIN to thank for success stories like these.” 

Autism Speaks does not provide medical or legal advice or services. Rather, Autism Speaks provides general information about autism as a service to the community. The information provided on our website is not a recommendation, referral or endorsement of any resource, therapeutic method, or service provider and does not replace the advice of medical, legal or educational professionals. Autism Speaks has not validated and is not responsible for any information, events, or services provided by third parties. The views and opinions expressed in blogs on our website do not necessarily reflect the views of Autism Speaks.