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Teens’ club aims to brighten future for classmates with autism

Hartford Courant - 1/20/2020

One sunny afternoon last fall, a group of students gathered at West Hartford’s Hall High School for an after-school meeting. As they dropped their backpacks and settled into chairs, they chatted and giggled and, well, acted like teenagers. But as jolly a group as they were, these students had come together for a serious purpose.

Members of the West Hartford Unified Business Club, founded two years ago, are working to help fellow students who have special needs build a foundation for productive, fulfilling lives after high school by equipping them with fundamental skills to participate in running a small business. Of the 10 students at this meeting, two -- Kevin Coons and Weller Simmons -- have disabilities that affect their communication and other skills. The other students want to help.

Darlene Borre, the club’s adult adviser and co-founder (with Weller’s mother, Noreen Simmons), says, “We are doing this because the future looks pretty dire for our kids with disabilities, especially for those with mid- and severe levels of autism and other disabilities.”

The statistics are discouraging: A 2015 study from Drexel University shows that 90 percent of adults with autism are unemployed. Borre, whose 18-year-old son Ben has autism, set out to create a program that would begin in high school and continue providing support and guidance after graduation, too. “We hope to take these businesses into an adult program with college interns helping us improve our businesses and continue to connect with our community,” she says.

At the meeting, Hunter Marotto, president of the club for Conard High, held up a T-shirt featuring West Hartford feline legend Crookshanks, who has become a local Facebook star for his amusing antics. The shirt, designed by area artist Julie Phillipps and sold at shops such as West Hartford’s B. Kind, bears a tag that explains the group’s purpose and names the student who folded the shirt. Folding shirts may seem a small thing, but, as Borre notes, “For some of our kids, packaging is the main thing they’re going to do.”

Phillipps, a founding member of the West Hartford Artists Emporium, says she’d known Borre for some time before the club was founded, and when Borre contacted her for help designing the club’s logo, she was happy to help.

“Unified Business is an awesome organization -- good for the community, and good for the kids,” Phillips says.

An ice-breaking exercise had the students read a list of “creative swears” such as “Oh, SNAP!” and select their 10 favorites, with an eye toward printing them as slogans on pins the club can sell. When Kevin Coons read the slogans aloud, his theatrical presentation and obvious joy in delivering words like “Dagnabit!” had the students howling. “I should be an actor!” Coons crowed.

“It was so funny to hear him get so excited," said Mica Lovell, the club’s Hall High president. "Kevin is one of the members who does not yet have a business plan, but he does not have any trouble getting excited about other people’s ideas.”

That discussion led to brainstorming about another potential project. Student Greta Magendantz said she had noticed "a lot of food themes, so maybe we could do a spatula or something.” Building on that thought, Borre suggested a cookbook. With help from Phillipps, the group created a West Hartford community cookbook featuring recipes from Mayor Shari Cantor, the principals of Hall and Conard high schools, and local restaurants, plus drawings by club members and photos taken by Hunter Marotto. The cookbooks, printed by Cricket Press, were ready by the first of December; the club sold all 75 copies by Christmas.

“Noreen and I wanted to show the students how their idea could go from idea to reality,” Borre explains. “Each cookbook was packaged with a glitter bookmark made by a club member, and the students hand-delivered them,” Borre says. “Some students had to reach out to restaurants to solicit recipes, and sometimes the restaurant said no. That’s a big part of the learning process, and that’s a big ask.”

Another of the group’s ongoing projects -- pendants that feature details from maps of West Hartford -- stemmed from Weller Simmons’ keen interest in geography.

“Weller has a good memory for addresses and routes and maps,” Borre says. “His family drives to D.C. at least once a year to visit family, and Weller knows all the exits and routes. He can recite the street addresses of many of his classmates from elementary school. Even though the map product line will be based on Weller’s interests, other club members will also be working on it, gaining vocational skills and also social skills. While some club members may not have the fine motor skills to cut out the map design, they may contribute by helping with packaging or the freebie gift.”

With every product it creates, the club includes a handmade gift with a sticker that reads, “Thank you for your purchase! All funds help create businesses for teens with disabilities. www.wehaunified.com,” and a card from the club member who packaged it, signed, “Made with love by.”

“We want you to know who was involved with your gift,” Borre says. "For those members who cannot sign their name, we are developing stamps that have their face and name on it. We want West Hartford to really get to know our club members and root for their success after high school.”

Hunter Marotto says, “This club is not like any club you see posters for around school. It’s nice to be with people who appreciate you regardless of what can do or can’t do. Everyone is there because they want to be there."

He adds, “It’s magical, knowing that in high school you helped someone start a business they’re passionate about.”

For more: studentmicrobiz.com.

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