Commonwealth Autism Ventures into Grocery Business to Foster Inclusive Employment

In a bold move aligning with its mission to address the challenges faced by individuals with autism, Commonwealth Autism has ventured into an unexpected sector: the grocery business.

Commonwealth Autism was founded 25 years ago by a group of parents frustrated with the lack of resources and support available to them. It aims to empower and address gaps in the system that families and individuals who have autism are experiencing every day. When the unemployment and underemployment rate for adults with autism rose up to 85% in recent years, Commonwealth Autism knew it needed to step up for the community.

The first step was acquiring Good Foods Grocery – a Richmond-local organic grocery store – in the fall of 2023. 

“We initially planned to invest in a coffee shop as a training opportunity; however, stumbling upon Good Foods Grocery presented a unique opportunity,” said CEO Tyler Hart. “It’s an established community hub with a loyal customer base — a perfect environment to integrate our employment program.”

The program is the first model of its kind in Virginia. Individuals with autism are encouraged to apply, and selected applicants go through a 30-day job and social skills training. After completion, the paid internship begins. It starts slow – working three to four hours per day, a few times a week – and then ramps up, as interns get a variety of experience at the store. 

Much more than a retail job, the 90-day internship program instills important life skills, like responsibility, time management and working as part of a team. Then, Commonwealth Autism helps each intern secure a full-time position with a community partner.

“Our goal is not just to provide jobs but to create meaningful employment that fosters independence and societal integration,” Hart said. “While the focus is on retail-specific tasks initially, such as stocking shelves and customer service, our ultimate goal is to prepare participants for diverse career paths.”

While the program was created with employment and development opportunities in mind, it also serves as a sustainable business model feeding back into the nonprofit’s services.

The bigger picture

Good Foods Grocery is only one piece of its Career Readiness Program, which places experience fulfillment at the forefront, helping match individuals to internships, coaching and full-time employment. Sandra Grady, chief development officer of Commonwealth Autism, believes the importance of community involvement cannot be overstated. 

“We’re not just looking for financial support; we need volunteers, job coaches, and partnerships with employers,” Grady said. “Every contribution, whether big or small, helps us create a more inclusive society.”

The organization’s expansion plans extend beyond Good Foods Grocery, envisioning similar initiatives across different regions of the state. 

“We see this as a pilot program that can be replicated statewide,” Hart said. “Our long-term goal is to establish similar ventures in each of the state’s social services regions, creating a network of employment opportunities for autistic adults.”

By merging entrepreneurship with social responsibility, it is paving the way for a more inclusive future — one where individuals of all abilities have equal opportunities to thrive.

To learn more or get involved with Commonwealth Autism, visit its website.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Posts