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ACRES Project Opens Door For Equity & Opportunity Through Special Needs Employment

In 2016, the ACRES Project hit the ground running.

As founder Bellamarie Bregar retired from teaching, she recognized her passion for pursuing special education was still ringing true. Bregar put her energy toward an idea that would change educational spaces for individuals with autism.

The ACRES Project is “a growing community designed by adults with autism for adults with autism.” ACRES, standing for Adults Creating Residential and Employment Solutions, focuses primarily on the independence adults with autism can acquire and provides those with the proper steps to achieve what they set out for.

“We don’t fit people into the programs. We fit our programs around the people,” public outreach employee Mary Krupa said.

Krupa, a Penn State graduate, is on the spectrum herself and was recruited by Bregar to be one of ACRES Project’s first employees. Since then, Krupa has been a moving member of its impact.

ACRES Project didn’t grow overnight. It has taken a team of hardworking individuals to build the organization into the segments that exist today. Within the organization, there are three main sectors that adults with autism mostly participate in: Acres Artisans, Acres Aquaponics, and the state-funded Office of Vocational Rehabilitation program. Through OVR is ACRES Project Programming.

“Acres Artisans is a collection of small businesses [operated by artists with autism],” Acres Artisans manager Kya Gresh said.

Within Acres Artisan, there are a number of individuals that produce homemade soaps, embroidered towels and sweatshirts, and customized heat-pressed orders. This segment of the ACRES Project offers an equitable environment for “meaningful, creative, educational, and social opportunities” for artists and entrepreneurs with autism.

Handcrafted soaps by Acres Artisans.

“When I got here, there was no Instagram or TikTok. I thought that would be beneficial to reach more of [college student] demographic,” social media intern Isabella Mastrangelo said. “I made those for Artisans and posting for engagement.”

Embroidery machine ran by Acres Artisans team.

The second main group that’s fresh to the scene is Acres Aquaponics. This section throughout the project was a process the team was willing to work for. In this past year, the organization had its greenhouse approved and built.

To get technical, aquaponics is an efficient and sustainable method of indoor agriculture where fish and vegetables grow in tandem. There is no use of soil or fertilizer — just a closed-loop ecosystem.

Their aquaponics staff produces “sustainable, local food while providing horticultural therapy, employment opportunities, job skills training, and community integration for our neighbors with autism and other disabilities.” Herbs and greens produced through the process are available for purchase online.

The ACRES Project aquaponics greenhouse

With the ACRES Project’s third main section, OVR and ACRES Project Programming is the entryway into the workforce for many adults with autism. Whether it’s job coaching, resume building, or preparing for interviews, OVR illuminates the process adults with autism can utilize.

“We do pre-ETS programming, which means we work with high schools students on transitioning,” program director Becca Stroschein said. “We do a self-advocacy group, an independent living skills group, and a work readiness group.”

This program is partnered with local districts and New Story schools, which is a newly licensed school service that provides educational and behavioral services to students.

As the ACRES Program team works within the schools, they are paired with students who have autism, Down syndrome, intellectual disabilities, hearing impairments, vision impairments, and more.

“This is a great opportunity to reach out to them, but to also have them work together,” Stroschein said. “It’s about self-advocacy…So many of these students have IEPs but have no idea what that means…It’s important to talk about them, how they help you, and what you can do with them.”

Within the pre-ETS program, students have a one-on-one experience with paid work experience. Each student develops skills with ACRES Project and continues to get a job in the community. From Discovery Space to Special Olympics, students can take advantage of these employment opportunities all throughout State College.

This summer, students will be introduced to a program where they will experience a 16-hour workweek with non-profits or the local government.

“We also do OVR supportive employment. This is after high school for adults…We do job development, which is preparing your resume, going over interviewing skills, job searching, and job applications,” Stroschein said. “We guide them through that whole process. Even going to interviews with them or going and exploring that job site.”

While high school is more of a temporary work experience, supportive employment is meant to be a permanent job placement. For most, there is a job coaching experience, which is also called a direct support provider. This means that once they get the job, there is a job coach next to them as a real-world guide.

A focal point for the programming system is to match jobs that are personalized with each member’s strengths and preferences in the work field.

“I job coach a person at the Discovery Space. Every Friday was wipe down the displays and clean the windows and doors,” Mastrangelo said. “Whatever they need help with, we volunteer together. I’m working to help her to make sure she stays on task.”

Through all of the ACRES Project’s success, Bregar’s future goal is to construct small homes resembling cottages for adults with autism.

“These homes will help those on the spectrum learn how to live by themselves and still have means of comfort and help,” Gresh said.

For now, ACRES Project is tackling one project at a time. Recently, Mastrangelo reconstructed the logo from a puzzle piece shape to a round, more inclusive logo that respects the community. It then ties in with the future homes that ACRES Projects plans to build.

“There is a subset of autistic people who do not like the puzzle piece symbol and do not feel like it represents them,” Krupa said. “We decided to change the logo to better reflect [the community].”

To continue the support ACRES Project produces, the organization will present a charity concert on June 18.

Courtesy of ACRES Project

To learn more about the ACRES Project, check out its website.

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About the Author

Larkin Richards

Larkin is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. The only words that leave her mouth are "yinz" and "dippy eggs." Luckily, her writing has much more substance than that. As a Steelers and Pirates fan, sports can become a hot debate. Share your thoughts on dogs (specifically Boston Terriers) with her at: [email protected]

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