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Finding Meaningful Work in Difficult Times

This is a blog post by Tracey Daigneau, M.Ed., Director of Day Services at New England Village.
Finding meaningful work for an individual with autism can be quite a challenge, needing to match skills and motivation with an appropriate job within the community. When you factor in external factors such as the economy, employer biases and lack of awareness of ASD it often becomes an overwhelming task.  At New England Village’s Employment Services program, we have the challenge of finding varied, consistent and meaningful work for over 70 adults, many of whom have ASD.
For the past twenty years, we have sought to provide work for our residents and day participants, primarily in the field of manufacturing.  Jobs such as assembly and packaging were ones which the vast majority of our population could do and enjoyed, often earning a nice sized paycheck as a result of their hard work.  Unfortunately, the past decade has seen quite a shift in manufacturing throughout Massachusetts.  Jobs becoming automated and going overseas, companies moving out of state or turning to other sources of inexpensive labor to cut costs has resulted in a significant decrease in available work opportunities for the individuals we support.
The unenviable task of finding year round work falls upon our program director, Rick Moulton.  A career in sales as well as the past decade spent in Human Services has served Rick and New England Village well, but the challenges listed above have made his job an extremely difficult one.  When work is not consistent, Rick hears about it from persons served, their families and even our own staff.  All are aware of the challenges he has but the bottom line is our expectation is to provide work for each and every individual, all with varying levels of skills and motivation, every day they attend our state of the art work center.
In an effort to lessen our reliance on available contract work in manufacturing, New England Village decided to take our destiny into our own hands by starting several of our own “business ventures.”  Established businesses in Landscaping and Cleaning had made us cautiously optimistic that we could find another business that provided meaningful, enriching work and also fit our organizational mission and philosophy.  We had previously done some packaging work for a local jewelry company and our success with this job combined with the interest many persons served had in creating jewelry led us to establish our third business, True Meaning Jewelry (TMJ).
We sought to create jewelry that fit our mission and as a result, decided to focus on developing a line of awareness jewelry.  A variety of causes were investigated but it was our partnership with Autism Speaks which has played the biggest role in our success.  Through this partnership, sales have increased dramatically, resulting in persons served assembling each and every piece of jewelry sold. Although the paycheck from this work is satisfying, the greatest benefit is the sense of pride one gets when they create a bracelet or necklace that has been ordered by one of our valued customers.  We have shipped our jewelry throughout the country and recently had our first international order!  Although many persons served still enjoy and benefit from the somewhat repetitive contract work described above, TMJ has become the job of choice for many individuals.  It fills a need which each of us has when it comes to our job: to feel valued, challenged and ultimately fulfilled.
As we move forward into our third full year of this business, it is not without its challenges, much the same as those any start up business faces.  Having enough volume to keep several people busy daily has been difficult and we have attended various local and state events such as the Greater Boston Walk Now for Autism Speaks as a supplement to our web based sales.  Although we have run a fairly significant deficit each year with TMJ, we are able and willing to continue this business due to it fulfilling our primary goal of providing work to persons with ASD and other developmental disabilities.
Autism Speaks has been a tremendous partner to New England Village and their willingness to promote and market our autism awareness jewelry is something that we are proud and appreciative of.  We remain hopeful that the partnership we have established with AS is one we can duplicate with other national foundations and associations which will ultimately result in additional work opportunities for those we support.
I was struck by a recent blog on this site that stated “All parents want the same things for all their children: loving friends, good health, work that is meaningful to them.” I hope some readers of this blog realize that they are not in this alone and that there are many committed professionals in the field that support adults with ASD, hoping to make a difference in the employment opportunities they have.
Click here to visit the True Meaning Jewelry web site.