The Chocolate Spectrum: Autism Employment One Sweet at a Time, with Valerie Herskowitz | EDB 107
(27 mins) In this episode, Dr. Hackie Reitman speaks with Valerie Herskowitz. She has been a speech pathologist and language specialist for 38 years and is the founder of the Chocolate Spectrum, a chocolate shop in Jupiter, Florida that is staffed by people on the Autism Spectrum. Valerie speaks to us about how the Chocolate Spectrum came about, the challenges she and other parents face in finding work for their adult children on the spectrum, and the importance to early exposure to career paths.
For more about the Chocolate Spectrum, visit: http://thechocolatespectrum.com/
Or, visit them on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/TheChocolateSpectrum/
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HACKIE REITMAN, M.D. (HR): Hi I’m Hackie Reitman welcome to another episode of Different Brains and we’re very lucky today to have somebody who’s really in the front lines. Valerie Herskowitz has been a speech pathologist and language specialist for about 38 years, she doesn’t look old enough and she is the founder of the Chocolate Spectrum which we’re going to tell you all about today and that’s the chocolate store that’s staffed by people on the autism spectrum whose brains are a little bit different, including her wonderful 26 year old son who’s kind of running the joint. Valerie hello welcome to DifferentBrains.
VALERIE HERSKOWITZ (VH): Hi Hackie thank you for having me I really appreciate this.
HR: Well it’s great though great to see you now I know your story and everything but I want to share it with our wonderful Different Brains audience because you have a tale to tell why don’t you introduce yourself to our audience.
VH: Well as you mentioned I’m Valerie Herskowitz and you never really know what life has in store for you and if I were to have to look back in the last five or six years and say this is where I’d be now I wouldn’t believe it but I just sort of let things unfold as they come and here I am, I’m the owner of a chocolate store and we also sell pastries and things like that and do parties and it employs my son as you mentioned and two guys with autism and we have up to I don’t know maybe I think we have 24 students now that come in and out of our dorm on a weekly basis interns and apprentices and team we have a team program now and it’s become like a little Center for making chocolate and learning how to work with others and here I am
HR: And where is it where is?
VH: We’re in Jupiter Florida which is on the northern end at the Palm Beach County line. We’re right on the corner of Indian Town Road and i-95 and a shopping centre called Jupiter West Plaza and people from that community know that plaza because there’s a Winn-Dixie in there
HR: And I know you ship out a lot of product too.
VH: That’s how we started yeah. We started out of my house in 2013…and back then it was just Blake and I and we started it as a mail-order and also we do shows where we go different places and sell things…and it started as mail-order and to this day we continue we have a mail-order business especially around the holidays that sends out everywhere in the US and all military installations around the world.
HR: Want you to tell everybody how they can help you train all of these interns and apprentices and pay your employees and run the business by buying some of your product. How would they do that?
VH: So if you want to buy our products there’s a couple of ways you can do it. One, of course, is we have a website…we have an online store so if you don’t live in the Jupiter or Palm Beach area, that would be a great way to do it. Its shop.thechocolatespectrum.com and you’ll see all of our products on there. We have an area right there you can click it, you can see we have for the holidays something for everyone… but if you’re in the Jupiter area come by the shop we have a retail shop and you can also have a nice look at all of the guys making chocolate or some of our classes…and those two great ways of getting our stuff. Work here at one of our shows. We do shows all over the county when people ask us to come with our treats and we set up a booth and we sell that way.
HR: What if there are some parents watching or some young teenage entrepreneurs who want to learn that business. Can they come there and get trained.
VH: Well we’re very lucky…because of my background in therapy area I was able to secure some terrific grants this year and we were able to expand our training program to not only include adults, which of course is my primary focus, but now we have a differently-abled team program. We’re doing sixteen teens this year in three-month increments. So right now I’m training our first group of four teens and they come eight hours a week…we have a classroom and some of it’s actually apprenticing where they work with us and they make the stuff that we need them to make and they we have criteria of what they need to do and when they’re done, hopefully, they’re going to have a lot of skills in the culinary area…and we also do a lot of customer service training to teach them how to wait on customers. So that can help them in other careers if they decide they want to do something else in retail or something like that…we do a lot of training in that area as well.
HR: Now when you’re running a business and you’re training so many people and everything and you’re doing all this good work. How do you make the decision between and what kind of business entity. Like some of our audience is thinking of starting something similar to help others like you. Do they become a not for profit or a profit or how do they navigate that, and how did you make your decisions?
VH: Again, like I said, I never planned for this to be a business, let alone something I was going to do for the autism community. I got into chocolate just because I used to run a therapy center down in Broward County and when I sold that and moved up to Palm Beach I was working part-time. I still work part-time as a professor at Nova University…and I decided to get into chocolate purely for fun…and like I said one thing led to another, my son got into it we ended up making a business out of it. I personally find anything dealing with food to be…it’s got its pros and it’s got its cons for the special needs community. The pro is that a lot of people who are differently abled and in the autism world happen to like sweets so that works out. A con of it is that the food industry is a really tough industry. There are so many rules and regulations and issues that you have to deal with when it comes to food. We’re manufacturers so we’re actually making everything. We don’t make the chocolate, we buy chocolate…but we make all the confections ourselves. So there’s a whole manufacturing component of that. In retrospect I don’t think I would recommend that, certainly not for anyone who’s weak at heart…and I would probably recommend that if let’s say you were a group of people, if you were getting together and you had a lot of support…but I’ve had to learn through the school of hard knocks how to do that kind of a business and it’s pretty demanding, especially if someone my age with all the commitments that I have. So when I get calls and emails from families…and we talk, we recommend different programs or different possibility of entrepreneurship for their individuals. I don’t recommend the food industry right off, unless that person has a particular interest or culinary expertise in that area. I would probably go to something else. There’s many other different types of businesses that one can go into, but I would probably go into something that doesn’t really involve manufacturing first of all.
HR: Well it’s very well said. You know it’s kind of like when sometimes people say to me well I want to be an orthopedic surgeon like you do. I said well it took about 15 years of training. Like you say, when you’re out in the business world whether it’s the very tough food industry or many industries there is aver steep learning curve and there’s a lot of investment involved. That’s why it’s capitalism also and it’s tough to make businesses succeed so I salute you. Care to share more with us about your son Blake and his different abilities?
VH: Absolutely, I’m an open book when it comes to Blake. Well I don’t like to use the term low functioning or high functioning that’s kind of gone out with the with the wind. We use terms now like hi service needs, mid service needs, or low service needs. That said, people can relate more when you use the low functioning thing you’re the high functioning thing. Blake would probably and all do fairness to him be considered a lower functioning or a high service need individual. So finding things for him to do after high school…well there just wasn’t anything. I mean literally nothing and it was just a fluke that he ended up kind of hanging out with me in the kitchen. I didn’t ask him to and he had never showed a big interest in the kitchen or anything. Actually, I was never really in the kitchen much myself until I got into this um when I had my therapy center I actually never cooked, I had a cook and my husband can’t believe that my life is now in the kitchen. Blake was never one of those kids…you know like people say oh my son with autism, he has this amazing interest border lining on obsession and then in this and that. Blake never had one of those. So the fact that it was pastries and chocolate later in life was amazing, which of course I jumped on it and that’s how come we decided to go ahead and make a business out of it. In the beginning it was just a hobby and we were making chocolate pastries for family and friends but that didn’t make up the course of a day. I needed him to be busy, there was literally nothing for him to do all day other than that. So we really almost had no choice but to go into business because I needed a way to be able to keep him busy and that was really the original point of why we started Chocolate Spectrum. We couldn’t just keep making stuff up and giving it to friends and family…we’ve got to figure out how to build this into something that’s going to keep him purposeful. So that’s what we did. Blake actually works six days a week at the shop. He and his caregiver take public transportation into the shop every day and he has one other thing that he’s good at and that’s laundry. So we put the washing machine and dryer in the shop, a little one of those mini ones, and he is responsible for all the aprons and towels and rags and he has to do that every day when he gets to the shop. Then he has certain things, like he makes all the chocolate bars in the shop, he helps put sprinkles on pretzels on truffles…he molds truffles and you know what I said to myself? This maybe isn’t very nice for me to say about my own son but I said if Blake can do it, anybody can do it. So that’s what led me to realize that this type of a business had potential for all levels on the spectrum, all levels of individuals and we just take advantage of whatever anybody’s abilities are and their strengths and we work on their weaknesses and we turn them into something. That’s what we do over there.
HR: Say now someone watching this has a child who’s aging out of the system so to speak. What are the resources, like I’m down here in Broward County…of course you got Dade County and Palm Beach County. So locally speaking, at least in this tri-county area, what do you suggest for parents who haven’t gone through the process and are trying to figure things out who do they turn to? What is some of the resources you might recommend? Might be a bit helpful? Although, I know it’s a tough navigation no matter what you do
VH: Well it’s a tough navigation because it’s a short list that’s the problem. I’m not saying there’s nothing, for one thing the Dan Marino Center has on the East the east side of Fort Lauderdale they have a vocationally based school for individuals that qualify for their programs. Also, ARC of Broward has a culinary program. Other than that honestly, there’s something called adult day training for individuals that are hi service needs…but really it’s a real short list. First of all they need to get their kids into vocational rehab now. In the state of Florida, they just passed a brand-new program called the Stars Program through vocational rehab. It starts with age fourteen. So if you have a fourteen year old or older in the public school system, you have to go to your public school and tell them that you want your child to be involved with vocational rehab through the Stars Program. It’s not a complete training program but they will give access to people to teach students who are, what we call, transitioning how to develop a resume, how to work on their social skills, and on how to improve interviewing skills. So we’re just getting into that in Palm Beach now where we’re associated now with the past program.
HR: Well that’s a great program.
VH: Brand new. In fact if you go to the school they might not even know about it you’ll have to call voc rehab for more info on it but the schools are supposed to be sending them through both vocational rehab starting at age 14.
HR: One of our board members at Different Brains is Debbie Managot who’s got a couple of master’s degrees and going for a PhD and she’s on several boards up in Palm Beach County and working hard. She does a lot of the starting with the infants actually…and one of our recent interviews with our mutual friend Temple Grandin who we interviewed her for Exploring Different Brains and she was just emphasizing make sure you start early with getting your kid used to working or doing some kind of job. Whatever it is they don’t even have to get paid, but you have to get them into it and part of the problems with our overall one-size-fits-all educational system and society system really is that the youngsters don’t get the exposure to different trades and vocations and find out what they might be passionate about…what they might be good at, find out what they may have a strength for, find out what they like doing. I mean the Chocolate Spectrum, Thomas Terry’s rising tide carwash in parkland, where all the employees are autistic and they love doing the work they do they. They do a great job washing the cars and trucks. So it’s you know all of these directions now I hope are moving in that direction to try to harness what abilities there are.
VH: Well I think I think you hit on one very important point Hackie and that’s, we as a group, we all waited too long to start doing this and that’s why for quite a while now I’ve been wanting to focus not only on the adults. I mean of course I love my adults, we have a fantastic training program there for them…but I wanted to get with the high schoolers and middle schoolers because I felt like we needed to start early even many years ago when I had my therapy center we had a program called Pathways to Independent Living where we started life skill training very young. So I was very happy when Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach shared our vision and helped us with a grant to start training not and said exposing individuals. It’s for 14 years to 18 years to be able to expose them not only to the culinary world that we’re in but the retail world and the manufacturing ends of things and even the shipping and packing end. So the 16 students that are going to be working with us this year we’ll have a lot of experiences and it may not end up where they’re going to be working in a chocolate shop but they can take the retail experience or the shipping experience or the or the culinary experience to the customer service or even just learning how to work with others. They struggle with how we communicate to other colleagues. So a lot of the social skills have to be worked on and I hope that there’s more initiatives like that going on. I haven’t seen a lot of them but hopefully there’s more initiatives like that going on. I know if you go over to the Renaissance Learning Center, which is housed on the Els campus up here in Jupiter, their high school program is very vocationally oriented…and I was lucky to get a tour of it probably about a month ago and I was very impressed with the fact that they’re focusing now on the vocational ends of things. So like I said, up here in Jupiter I know what’s going on but down in other areas I hope that there’s more of that going on if there’s more initiatives for the transitioning teens as they say.
HR: Now do they have much of a presence of card The Center for Autism Related Disabilities up where you are?
VH: Yes we work with card at FAU. We work very closely with the individuals up there. They’re very supportive of us and I can’t thank them enough. They’ve been with me since I started this project back in 2013. They have promoted us they helped us get the word out, they come in, they like to buy chocolate, they bring their groups over. Card for us up here and not only card at FAU but card at UM even though um isn’t technically covered in our area, they’ve jumped on board with our initiatives for adults.
HR: I found Michael to be terrific and when we got them to interview him, it was very educational for me and inspirational to.
VH: I’ve been really lucky but I’m also really persistent and I think if you go back to your original question about with what parents can do one thing that I just want to say to parents is that don’t wait around for somebody to come and drop something in your lap because that’s not going to happen. You need to be out there rattling doorknobs and trying to get people to open them to your kids. There’s a wonderful thing that happened hat I wanted to share. One of the individuals I know a parent up here literally went and he was looking for a job he really hit the streets, he hit the pavement and he and he didn’t wait and he didn’t end until he found a job for his son and it’s worked out beautifully…and he also works on those skills that his son needs and those jobs at home during the week. So his son not even graduated from high school yet. So if people think that there’s that their kids are going to graduate from high school at the age of 22 or whatever and there’s just going to magically be this incredible life for them when they’re done with high school that’s not there. You have to start planning way ahead and you have to start being very assertive and push. I guess that’s aggressive, but you have to see, you have to get out there and start making things happen it’s just not something that just appears.
HR: Very well said. With all that’s in the literature now about the microbiome in your gut and the gut brain stuff and all diets stuff. Do you have any problems navigating that pathway with the chocolates and pastries and things?
VH: I wouldn’t say that we’re a diet center. My son has been gluten free and encasing free for 23 years. So because of that I cook and I baked gluten and encasing free. We’re not gluten and encasing-free in the shop per se. However, one great thing about chocolate is chocolate is naturally gluten free, so most of our products are gluten free except for our pastries…but our chocolate products for the most part are gluten free. I would say 90 percent of our products are gluten free so that helps as far as dairy free or people that are vegan. We do have certain products that are appropriate for them and then from a pastry perspective we have customers that order from us, special order. There are gluten-free products so they’ll say oh I’m having a birthday party we need like two dozen gluten-free cupcakes…and so you know because of my background with Blake, having learned to bake we can accommodate them. There’s no problem with that but in the shop itself I sometimes feel bad for Blake because if we’re baking he can’t taste something…but we always have something for him and forth others that don’t eat gluten.
HR: I want to thank you very much for being with ushered I would also like you to once again tell the audience where you’re located, the name of everything you do and have can we get in touch with you and everything else.
VH: You can call me and order if you feel more comfortable. I had a lady from Alaska call us last night she didn’t want to use the online ordering so our shop number is 561-277-9886. You can come, you can even call me on my cell I’ll answer any time in a day like I did for the lady in Alaska last night. 954-498-0034. Our shop is at 6725 West Indian Town Road Suite 38 Jupiter, Florida, but for those of you who are watching this and you don’t live anywhere near here our website is thechocolatespectrum.com and I really would love it if you could visit us on Facebook we have the Chocolate Spectrum and we have we’re pretty good at posting a lot of stuff going on, what we’re doing, and our and our chocolate specials and things like…but if you go on our website you can register for our email and you’ll get all kinds of emails, not too many, but you’ll get emails.
HR: Do you have any special holiday promotions going on?
VH: If you register if you go to the chocolatespectrum.com and you get on our mailing list where you go on Facebook and you become a part of Facebook and you check that regularly we will have all sorts of early bird specials. For early bird shoppers for the holidays will have 20% off days…all kinds of special deals for the holidays and we do we have things for everybody from a small box of four chocolates all the way up to 24 plus in a box…and we send it out everywhere. So if you have any friends in the military we can do them too for the holidays.
HR: Well Valerie Herskowitz, of the Chocolate Spectrum up there in Jupiter, thank you so much for being with us here on Exploring Different Brains and we hope you’ll comeback very soon.
VH: Sure, thank you so much this is a wonderful thing thank you again.
Different Brains® Inc. founder Harold “Hackie” Reitman, M.D. is an author, filmmaker, retired orthopedic surgeon, former professional heavyweight boxer, the past chairman and president (and current board member) of The Boys and Girls Clubs of Broward County, and a neurodiversity advocate. However, it was his role as a father that led to the creation of the DifferentBrains.org website.
Hackie’s daughter Rebecca grew up with epilepsy, 23 vascular brains tumors, and underwent 2 brain surgeries before the age of 5. Her struggles and recovery put him on the road to, through 26 professional heavyweight boxing matches, raising money for children’s charities (to which he donated every fight purse).
Rebecca eventually went on to graduate from Georgia Tech with a degree in Discrete Mathematics, and Dr. Reitman wrote and produced a film based on her experiences there (The Square Root of 2, starring Darby Stanchfield of ABC’s Scandal). After graduation, Rebecca received a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. Hackie, shocked at his own ignorance of the topic despite being an M.D., embarked on years of research that culminated with his book Aspertools: The Practical Guide for Understanding and Embracing Asperger’s, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and Neurodiversity (released by HCI books, publishers of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series).
This experience revealed to Hackie the interconnectedness of the conditions that fall under the neurodiversity umbrella, while alerting him to the in-fighting and fractured relations that often plague the organizations tasked with serving the community. Convinced that overcoming these schisms could help all of society, Hackie forged the Different Brains philosophy of inclusive advocacy: “Supporting Neurodiversity – From Autism to Alzheimer’s and All Brains In Between”.
In the company’s initial years of operation, Hackie self-financed all of the content on DifferentBrains.org, all of which offered free to view to the public. Currently he is the host of our weekly interview show Exploring Different Brains, writes blogs for the site, and tours the country speaking at conferences, conventions and private functions, all with the goal of improving the lives of neurodiverse individuals and their families, and maximizing the potential of those with different brains. Separate from Different Brains, Hackie is the founder and CEO of PCE Media, a media production company focusing on reality based content. He recently co-executive produced the documentary “Foreman”, the definitive feature documentary on legendary boxer and pitchman George Foreman.