The “super ball,” they’re calling it. It will consist of about 350 pounds of mozzarella. They’re hoping it will put them in the Guinness Book of World Records.
But more important, they’re hoping it will publicize their name and make people aware of their existence and their mission.
Spectrum Works is a nonprofit company founded by Ann Marie Sullivan and Tom Siniscalchi to train and employ individuals with autism.
“Our mission is to give job training and paid employment to people with autism by starting non-profit businesses,” said Sullivan. “Our vision is to change society’s perception and make people aware that people with autism can be productive, valued members of society.”
To that end, Spectrum Works partnered with Green Distribution, a tee shirt manufacturer in Secaucus. Green Distribution runs a 100,000 square foot operation employing 259 employees who print, package, and distribute 65,000 pieces a day for companies like Nike, Harley-Davidson, Disney, and Universal. When the Rolling Stones or Lady Gaga come to town, it’s Green Distribution swag being sold in the concessions.
Spectrum Works employees are involved in the manufacture of those products. In addition, and more crucially, the company generates its own projects and sales, with proceeds going toward hiring and training more employees with autism.
An evolving project
The goal for Spectrum Works is to work with students while they’re still in school and train them for full time employment. What sets the company apart from similar training programs is their intention to hire the individuals upon graduation.
“A lot of places where kids work in sheltered workshops or they work with other kids who have disabilities, there’s nothing for them once they graduate,” said Sullivan. “They disappear from society’s view. We integrate them into the workforce. We work with the schools so the kids come and work as part of their day. We have a job coach. We provide job training. They work side by side with the other employees in the shop.”
“Our mission is to give job training and paid employment to people with autism by starting non-profit businesses” – Ann Marie Sullivan
“Within five minutes of us telling him what we want to do he said, ‘Why don’t you partner with us?’” said Sullivan.
That led to Spectrum Works setting up shop within the Green Distribution warehouse. “This facility gives us the capability to have high-quality, high-volume, competitively priced items,” said Sullivan. “We bring our program into his infrastructure so that we don’t have to pay for equipment.”
Currently Spectrum Works employs five students and eight part time employees. “The idea is to get them to full time, but we have to work up to that,” said Sullivan. “We have to sell. We’re a business. We have to hire them as we get our business. So we tell people the more shirts that you buy from us, the more people we can hire. Our motto is ‘Every purchase supports people with autism.’”
Sullivan, the CEO of Spectrum Works, comes from a diverse business background. “I’m from the for-profit world. I’ve started businesses in Europe and the US.”
But at the same time, she spent considerable time in the nonprofit sphere. “I was looking for something. I wanted to give back. I actually traveled around the world and I volunteered all over. I lived in Papua, New Guinea. I worked with a tribe in the jungle. I did sustainable livelihood projects. I worked in Africa on a big game preserve. I worked in an orphanage. I realized I could work on those grass roots projects but my skills weren’t being utilized. I loved all those things but when I came back I started reading about social enterprise and realized my business skills would be better suited to that, so I worked for a consulting company that consulted to nonprofits and I helped them start their social enterprise department.”
It was in that capacity that she met Siniscalchi about four years ago. “Tom is from the nonprofit world,” she said. “He has started social programs dealing with intellectual disabilities, developmental disabilities in a small, mom and pop setting.”
At the time they met, Tom ran a screen printing shop for people with disabilities. “It wasn’t sustainable,” Sullivan said. “The problem with all these small programs is you need to be competing with a for-profit company and you have costs that they don’t have. Our idea was to start a nonprofit social enterprise, get it financially sustainable with product created by its workforce, which is our people with autism. And like any business, that takes a couple of years to get to financial sustainability. Once that happens we want to start another type of business, and then when both of them are self-sustaining we want to replicate this type of model around the country so that it becomes more impactful. Our whole model is sustainability. We want this to run with the mindset of we can do productive work, we can make competitively-priced high quality items.”
Armed with a business plan, the pair set about drumming up startup money for their project, which took several years. “We got funded by the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation,” said Sullivan. “The New York Yankees actually gave us our first large donation but the DVR is where we got the bulk of our funding from.”
Spectrum Works received their first funding in April of 2013 and moved into the Green Distribution facility last June. “We got our first person in July and we’re growing from there,” said Sullivan.
The big ball
The “Super Ball” project was hatched in conjunction with Mayor Michael Gonnelli to publicize the name of Spectrum Works.
“The idea of this event is to raise awareness that people with autism can create amazing things, they just need opportunities,” said Sullivan. “This is just the first small step, getting our name out there.”
The ball will be manufactured at by Toscana Cheese at their Secaucus plant, utilizing a huge mold. It will then be transferred to Buchmuller Park and displayed in the Spectrum Works space inside the pavilion. Spectrum Works will be selling specially designed souvenir “World Record” tee shirts and souvenirs to generate income for the program.
“Now that we’re here in Secaucus, I can’t imagine being in a better town that this,” said Sullivan. “The mayor has been amazing. He introduces me to businesses, he’s introduced me to the school system, to politicians. He believes in this program and he wants to help make it successful. Victor Paparazzo, the president of Toscana, as soon as the mayor asked him about it, he said ‘sure.’ And now he said he wants to hire our guys. We’ll do the job training. The more people we tell our story to, the more possibilities, not just for us, but for all.”
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.