Orange County

Chapel Hill nonprofit working with people with autism to prove there’s a job for everyone

Patrick Eden straightens up between loads at EV Laundry in the Extraordinary Ventures facility on South Elliott Road in Chapel Hill. Eden, 25, has autism and has worked at EV Laundry for more than four years. He now manages fellow employees.
Patrick Eden straightens up between loads at EV Laundry in the Extraordinary Ventures facility on South Elliott Road in Chapel Hill. Eden, 25, has autism and has worked at EV Laundry for more than four years. He now manages fellow employees.

Patrick Eden speaks softly, growing more passionate when asked about his dream of being a computer programmer and game designer.

Until a few years ago, his autism made it hard to interact with people; the 25-year-old says he didn’t think much about the quality of his work.

Now, he’s nearing five years with EV Laundry – one of six businesses operated by Extraordinary Ventures – and managing other employees.

“I think the thing I like most about EV is the stuff I’ve learned from here,” Eden said. “EV has gotten me to come out of my shell – I used to be very introverted, could barely talk to people. It taught me a lot, like social (skills) and a work ethic, which is something I struggled with throughout school.”

He urges others with autism to run with any opportunity that comes their way.

“It doesn’t hardly matter what it is – maybe a volunteer gig, or a part-time job,” Eden said. “Anything that will get you experience, give it a shot, because that’s something that people with autism really struggle with is stagnating. ... Give yourself that little push that you need to start.”

Eden, his co-workers and others will celebrate Extraordinary Ventures’ 10th anniversary Saturday, June 24. The nonprofit started by a group of parents has provided jobs for roughly 100 adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities since 2007, managing director Paige Morrow said.

Extraordinary Ventures also provides social opportunities, from Friday night get-togethers to a summer basketball camp and trips to Hyco Lake. UNC-Chapel Hill students are vital to EV’s social mission, co-founders Gregg and Lori Ireland said.

EV’s first business was an Event Center, renting out the 200 S. Elliott Road building in Chapel Hill for meetings, conferences and parties. Newer businesses include EV Laundry; Office Solutions; Simple Clean Bus Detailing Services; EV Gifts, which makes and sells candles and other goods; and EV Pets dog-walking service.

A diverse business portfolio gives them multiple employment options, they said, and stabilizes the nonprofit if one of the businesses slows down.

“Our dream would be that this country would have economic opportunities for everybody,” said Gregg Ireland, also a member of EV’s Board of Directors.

“Our thinking is that’s not going to happen, so what we’re trying to do is create an alternative,” he said. “We’re making products and services, just like any other basic products and services that other people make. So they’re needed, and they’re contributing to their work, contributing to society, to the economy.”

National crisis

Only 17.8 percent of adults with disabilities are employed, The Economist reported last year. The unemployment rate for adults with autism was 80 percent.

That transition from school to work is a national crisis for adults with intellectual and development disabilities, especially as their parents age, said Lori Ireland, who also is vice chairwoman of the Autism Society of America.

EV Chapel Hill typically employs up to 60 people, all of whom earn at least minimum wage. Many work alongside a job coach, paid for through a Medicaid waiver and meant to provide on-site job skills training and support.

They have a waitlist of people who want to work, Lori Ireland said, and a limited amount of money. The businesses generate about 85 percent of their funding now, managing director Paige Morrow said, followed by donations. Most of this year’s $1 million-plus budget will pay for salaries, she said.

The more recent focus has been sharing the EV model with nonprofit organizations nationwide, the Irelands said, and new centers have opened over the last few years in California, Michigan, Massachusetts and New York.

“For one’s sense of pride and hope, it’s huge,” Lori Ireland said. “That’s been the best thing from Extraordinary Ventures that I’ve seen. It just makes me light up inside when I see people productively working, happy about it, interacting with the community. It’s wonderful.”

Meeting new people

Anyone with autism who’s seeking friendship, a job and a steady income should check out EV, employee Tyler Badgett said.

The 22-year-old is a performer at heart and loves meeting new people. His autism is mild but used to send his bubbly personality out of control, he said, causing problems in school. He said he now tries to think more before he speaks.

Badgett found Extraordinary Ventures by chance, while looking for a place to hold his mother’s 50th birthday party. He found his place in the Event Center, helping clients and setting up tables, chairs and the frills. But he’s got big dreams of being a professional event planner, working in the entertainment business, and one day going to school for cosmetology, he said.

“Emotionally, (EV) has changed my life. Financially, it has changed my life. It has just done some great wonders for me, some great mind-blowing things I never thought would happen,” he said.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

If you go

Extraordinary Ventures will celebrates its 10th anniversary with a Backyard Picnic from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday, June 24. The event will include live music from Big Fat Gap, catering from Al’s Burgers and Mel’s Commissary, and Maple View Ice Cream on the green at 200 S. Elliott Road in Chapel Hill.