Sara Mae Hickey knew she wanted to be a difference maker for a long time. She considered the Peace Corps after she graduated from Skidmore in 2012, but she soon realized her most important cause was at home — her sister Emily.
And so at 23, Hickey is the owner of Puzzles Bakery & Cafe, which is set to open sometime between April and June at 515 State St. in Schenectady and will employ adults on the autism spectrum and who have other disabilities, a group studies have shown to be severely underemployed. She's also the president and founder of the nonprofit The Autism Initiative, which helps provide educational and recreational programming to those in the autism community.
Hickey's sister Emily, who is on the cusp of turning 21, has autism and is considered low-functioning. She requires constant care, has a limited vocabulary for her age and is unable to live on her own. When Hickey was in kindergarten, she toted a pamphlet about autism along to class, a result of her parents' longtime involvement with the local chapter of the Autism Society of America. In a lot of ways, Emily's disability shaped Hickey's path.
"My whole life she's always been a big inspiration to me. I've always seen the bigger picture. We know so many families who are affected by this disability," says Hickey, who has bachelor's degrees in anthropology and government from Skidmore College and a master's certificate in nonprofit management from SUNY Purchase. "I don't think everyone really understands it's a lifelong disability. These children become adults, and they live a very long time."
The newest statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show 1 in 50 U.S. children have been diagnosed with autism. A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry last year showed young adults with autism spectrum disorders have worse employment outcomes in the first few years after high school than peers with other disabilities, such as learning disabilities, emotional disturbances and speech or language impairments. About 53 percent of young adults on the spectrum have ever worked for pay outside the home within the first eight years out of high school. About 21 percent of young adults on the spectrum worked full time at a current or most-recent job, with the average pay of $8.10 per hour. The disorder is a spectrum. Many think of those on the spectrum as simply "quirky," intelligent people who sometimes possess unique gifts, such as author, advocate and professor of animal science Temple Grandin, But it is called a spectrum disorder for a reason. Sometimes, like Emily, young adults on the spectrum face a host of challenges, including communication and self-care, and are not capable of living on their own.
By showing how well it can work at Puzzles, Hickey wants to encourage other businesses to pursue hiring adults with developmental disabilities. She said there are already government programs that provide incentives, such as covering the employee's wages while they learn the skills needed to do the job.
Hickey says she hopes Puzzles — named after the puzzle-piece symbol often used to represent the mysteriousness and range of the disorder — will be a place where young adults with various challenges can find a role, whether it's making coffee, chopping vegetables or delivering food to tables. She says it's unlikely Emily will be able to work at Puzzles because she'll be headed to a day program for adults with disabilities, but she will be a frequent visitor.
The effort has become a family project. Hickey's father, Dan Hickey, purchased the building on State Street and is refurbishing some upstairs apartment units as an investment. Her mother, Elaine Hickey, serves on the board of The Autism Initiative. Dan Hickey is also doing much of the construction work himself, along with volunteers and some hired contractors. Hickey was able to secure a $50,000 grant from Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority for exterior renovations, including an outdoor patio. She's also in the process of securing a loan.
She's had some experience in the food industry, working at Panera Bread and other restaurants, and has hired a graduate of Schenectady County Community College's culinary arts program to serve as kitchen manager. The business will employ adults without disabilities as well, and will try to hire as many adults with disabilities as possible by offering short shifts. Puzzles will also work with the Wildwood Programs and Schenectady ARC to provide internships, job shadowing experiences and employment opportunities to those students and adults. The bakery and cafe will serve sandwiches, baked goods and soup.
"I do envision this being something more of a chain," she says. "I'd like to have as many as possible so we could employ as many individuals with special needs as possible."
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