Billy Pagoni is a 21 year-old man with severe autism who dreams of becoming a sous chef. His parents searched for a program that could accommodate his special needs, but were unsuccessful. In April, 2012, Billy posted a video to his Facebook account to share his dilemma with President Obama.
“Dear President Obama, my name is Billy Pagoni. I want to be a baker. I am a great student. I never miss a day of school. I get A’s on my report card. Please, can you help me go to college? I am an American. I am autistic.”
His video received international attention, and a White House spokesperson offered his parents a list of colleges offering programs for students with autism. Upon further investigation, Billy’s family found that all of these programs were geared towards individuals with higher-functioning autism or Asperger’s Syndrome.
Billy was able to get a taste of the college experience through a program Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, where he was able to finish his senior year of high school while living on campus and learning the skills to live independently.
After he graduated in May 2013, his mother, Edith, found G.R.O.W.E.R.S., Inc., a company that trains people with developmental disabilities to perform useful skills and tasks in a normal work environment. G.R.O.W.E.R.S, which stands for Growing Real Opportunities with Educational Relationships and Stability, trains individuals with developmental disabilities to grow flowers and plants in a greenhouse.
Scott Hickman, owner and president of G.R.O.W.E.R.S, says,
“With a lot more people coming of age with autism, there’s going to have to be more programs available. . . One of the things I hate to see is an agency that turns into a babysitting service. . . What we offer, and what needs to be offered in more programs, are activities that are connected with something worthwhile.”
While Edith has been thrilled with Billy’s progress in the G.R.O.W.E.R.S. program, she still wants to help him achieve his dream of becoming a chef. She teamed up with Autism Speaks to form the non-profit KNEADS program, which is building an educational model for restaurants and other businesses to partner with local colleges to develop certificate programs specifically designed to educate people with autism. The goal would be for each participant to find employment after graduation, using the skills learned through the program.
“If they could carve certain jobs out and then bring it to a vocational trade school and call it a program, then they would have a path towards employment,”
says Edith. She hopes that programs like KNEADS can help to fill in the gap for people like Billy, who has difficulty communicating.
“As a parent, you can have all the money in the world, but if your son or daughter is not connected, then it feels like you’ve failed. These major franchises that are in business: Let us help you. There are so many that we can plug into.”
To find out more about the G.R.O.W.E.R.S. program visit their web site at: www.growersinc.org/