Scott Edelheit is 27. He earned his associate’s degree from SUNY Rockland Community College and lives in the county seat of Rockland, which has one of the state’s lowest unemployment rates, at 3.1%.
But career prospects didn’t really develop beyond cleaning up at a fast-food joint and bagging groceries at a supermarket.
That’s not an unusual career trajectory for people like Edelheit, who are identified as being on the autism spectrum. The unemployment rate for people with autism two years after high school is more than 50%, according to Autism Speaks, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting people with autism and their families. Most who do find employment end up working part time and earning low wages.
Edelheit wants more.
“Enough time had passed that I wanted to apply for other opportunities,” he said during his Tuesday morning training shift at Lillian’s Café in the lobby at Rockland’s Jewish Community Campus in West Nyack.
Four workers at Lillian’s are young adults with autism. Edelheit mostly stays up front, working the register, making coffee, and interacting with customers, which the New City resident said can be a bit tricky. But he knows it’s an important skill to have, and that his new job at Lillian’s offers him an opportunity to get better at it.
Lillian’s Café, which holds its grand opening at 10 a.m. Thursday, is operated by Rockland Jewish Family Service, which is based at JCC. The café’s tagline on its menu and signage: “Not your typical cup of coffee.”
Benefits beyond a nosh
The café, which had its soft opening at the beginning of May, serves several purposes, said Michele Koenig, director of clinical programs at RJFS. The JCC needed a stable food-service vendor and young adults with autism needed job training and opportunities.
Plus, people who use the JCC gym and visit the various programs there need a quick breakfast, lunch or nosh. JCC-based programs and local businesses can also have events catered by Lillian’s and also order lunch via DoorDash or Grubhub.
LOW WAGES: Agencies struggle to find workers who aid people with disabilities
YOUTH SUICIDE: Why is it a crisis and what can we do?
BIG BARGAINS, BIG HELP: Annual fashion sale aids family shelter organization
The community benefits go well beyond providing locals with freshly prepared options from the kosher dairy menu that offers vegan and gluten-free options. The cafe opens at 7 a.m. weekdays and closes at 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 2 p.m. on Friday.
Approximately 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, a 15% increase in autism diagnoses in just a couple years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. If the economic imperative isn’t enough of a motivator, the Americans with Disabilities Act ensures that every person should be provided opportunities to live as independently as possible.
‘That’s how I learn’
Mark Reznik, 22, is among the four adults with autism currently employed at Lillian’s. Reznik works mostly in the kitchen, and said he’s developed proficient knife skills and likes making tuna salad — an overwhelming menu favorite — and soups. (His hint for not getting watery eyes while cutting onions: Wear goggles.)
“It’s hands on,” Reznik said about why this job is so satisfying. “That’s how I learn with my disabilities.” He said the kitchen skills aren’t all he’s picked up. “I learn communication with appropriate language (and) organization,” said Reznik, who lives with his dad in Wesley Hills. “If you don’t know how to handle high-pressure situations, you’ll learn here.”
Reznik also takes pride in the café’s name, in memory of Lillian Adler, who died last year at age 84. A Holocaust survivor, Adler was on the boards of the Jewish Federation & Foundation of Rockland County and the Rockland Jewish Family Service, along with other philanthropic endeavors.
But chef Angela Rivera said the endeavor maintains real business goals and high employee standards. The trainees, she said, “are just like any other person in the world — they have their own abilities, strengths, weaknesses.”
Reznik said he feels just like any other member of the staff. “I’m not being treated any differently, I’m not being paid any differently. They don’t dumb down anything for me.”
Nancy Cutler covers People & Policy for the USA Today Network Northeast. Share comments and ideas by emailing her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @nancyrockland.