One mother’s mission to ensure her son with autism would have a promising future has been accomplished beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.
After the loss of her husband in 2010, Stella Spanakos wondered, “Should I wallow in self pity, or should I find the strength to make my husband’s life, and our struggle raising a child with autism, mean something?” She founded Spectrum Designs, a custom apparel business where her son Nicholas works with other young people facing similar challenges. The company is now a model social enterprise offering authentic vocational experiences to individuals on the autism spectrum.
“Stella’s story is very inspiring,” says Lee Anne Vetrone, development manager at Spectrum Designs Foundation. “Along with her cofounders, Nicole Sugrue and Patrick Bardsley, she created a business model that will positively impact the lives of individuals with autism and their families for years.”
The need is great. In the U.S., only 14 percent of adults with autism held paid jobs in their communities, according to a 2017 Drexel University Autism Institute report. Each year, 50,000 teens with autism age out of school-based services.
Spectrum’s work environment is designed to help employees excel. Seventy-five percent of its workforce is on the autism spectrum. There are 35 people on staff, 21 of whom have developmental disabilities.
The company generated more than $2 million in sales this year. Clients include Google, Facebook, and Uber.
“Providing meaningful work opportunities leads to greater independence, an improved quality of life and a future filled with hope,” says Vetrone.
The business, which started with one machine in a barn on Spanakos’ Plandome Manor property, is now located in a new 7,500-square-foot facility in Port Washington that houses its custom screen printing, embroidery, and digital printing services. It also houses Spectrum Suds, a boutique laundromat offering 48-hour turnaround, and Spectrum Bakes, creating gourmet, small-batch granola treats for corporate events, party favors and personalized gifts.
Joe Penzel, 26, has worked at Spectrum Designs since 2013.
“I like to clean the screens,” says Penzel. “I also like to sort the shirts.”
Last year, Spectrum completed its largest order: more than 5,000 two-in-one jackets for Metro-North Railroad, imprinted with the agency’s logo.
In turn, the company became a go-to source for large municipal contracts in both imprinting and logistics.
“We receive inquiries every day from around the country and the world,” says Vetrone.
For more information visit spectrumdesigns.org