EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - 1 in every 68 children in the United States has some form of autism. 500,000 autistic students will graduate from American high schools in the next five years. 90% of adults with autism will not be employed. These startling statistics are reported by Let's Work for Good the East Brunswick nonprofit group formed to address the need for jobs for autistic adults that provide work experience, the development of interpersonal skills, and human dignity. Popcorn for the People is the company they managed, which, until recently, was located at the Brunswick Square Mall.
However, due to the foresight and generosity of the local community, autistic adults can now make, pack, and distribute popcorn from their new location on Harts Lane. Agnes Cushing-Ruby, counselor and production manager at Popcorn for the People said, " This process and environment gives our people greater prospects as workers. Many of these adults are only-children and are used to being the focus of attention. Here, they learn to work together and to act responsibly with peers."
"Our purpose at Let’s Work for Good is to ensure that all adults with autism and developmental disabilities have the satisfaction and feeling of accomplishment as a result of steady employment. Let’s face it, work is an integral part of adult life. Adults with autism and other developmental disabilities have the ability, desire and right to work. Yet the unemployment rate for this group is staggering," says Steve Bier, who began the Pop-In Cafe at the mall almost two years ago.
Popcorn for the People's new home at 5 Hart's Lane is both the result of the Pop-In Cafe's success at generating interest -and popular snacks- at their original location and the generosity of the Frank Greek Development Corporation of East Brunswick. The company has donated the use of the new location as a processing center for Popcorn for the People, allowing the the production of the many flavors of popcorn to continue in an environment that can address a growing business.
Industrial shelving was provided by Titan Rack and Shelving of New Brunswick, allowing the distribution process and preparation to become more orderly than it had been at the original location. On a recent visit to the location, shelves were filled with transport bags of popcorn earmarked for local festivals and other events.
Ashley Home Stores of Central Jersey, a platinum sponsor of East Brunswick's July 4 event represented by Social Responsibility and Community Outreach Coordinator Christian Anastasio, got Popcorn for the People on its feet at the new location. Ashley's owner Will Schafer donated a van, the outdoor sign, office furniture and employed contractors and plumbers to get the production facility up and running. "Our company has a core value of fulfillment, " said Schafer. "Our heart is centered on our guests, associates, team members, and the community. We believe in giving back to the people who support our stores." Schafer, an East Brunswick resident, noted that 10% of all marketing expenditures go toward investing in the community which his business serves. When Schafer, a long-time friend of Steven Bier, heard about Popcorn for the People's need for more space following its adoption by Rutgers Athletics, he stepped up to support the growth of the program and the increased need for product. "It is our honor to be able to help Steve and the organization and the people who benefit from the program," said Schafer. In 2014, Will Schafer was the recipient of the Howard Liveright award for his commitment to the furniture industry and his support of New Jersey residents following Hurricane Sandy and participation in Ashley’s “A Hope To Dream” program that provides mattresses to children in need.
Popcorn for the People is the "Official Flavored Popcorn" for Rutgers University athletic events, in a partnership with The Rutgers Chapter of Enactus, an international non-profit organization that harnesses the power of entrepreneurial action to improve local communities. Recently, Google has given Popcorn for the People over $10,000 in free advertising, according to Steve Bier.
"Autism at Work" is an initiative of local, national, and international companies. At a recent symposium, Dr. Stephen Scott proposed, "There’s been something happening with many employers. It’s a slow but steady shift but it seems to be gaining momentum. Companies are moving from having a charitable mentality, “We need to hire people with autism out of the goodness of our hearts,” to “We need to hire autistic employees because it’s a good business decision.” Yes, autistic employees are positively impacting the bottom line, and more companies are adopting this new mindset." Steve Bier credits Scott's thinking with moving the employment of all types of thinkers forward.
Currently, Popcorn for the People is being promoted and served at the St. Ann's Italian Festival in Hoboken. Upcoming events include the Monmouth and Middlesex County Fairs. There is a Popcorn for the People "pop-up" sale at the Woodbridge and Bridgewater malls on the weekends, too.