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Founded in 2011, The Nicholas Center’s mission to "support individuals with autism lead full and productive lives in the community". Co-founders, Stella Spanakos, Nicole Ferrara and Patrick Bardsley considered the question;
"What happens to individuals with special needs when they grow up?”
Collectively, with over 30 years of experience in autism education and nonprofit endeavors, the trio were eager to develop solutions to address this question. Concerned with the lack of meaningful opportunities for young adults after graduation, the vision became to create a community-propelled program model to serve as an alternative to traditional "day habilitation" programs. It would be person-centered and community-fueled. The goal?
To become a self-sustaining and replicable model and make a significant impact on the lives of people with autism.
From inception, The Nicholas Center has taken full advantage of its natural resources by utilizing the community-at-large as a platform for service delivery, forging community partnerships to work with local non-profits and business to assist in their missions and needs, while gaining life skills, job training and independence.
To avoid being solely reliant on the accommodations of an existing community, the co-founders formed a separate nonprofit, Spectrum Designs Foundation. This is an independently operated nonprofit with its own mission of developing community-based businesses and offer employment to those with autism. It has developed accommodating employment principles, uses smart business practices and promotes integrated work environments.
Working in partnership, The Nicholas Center offers coaching supports to Spectrum employees, as well as a Transitional Work Training program for persons not quite "employment ready". This includes those who might never be competitively employed, but still benefit from being engaged in meaningful work opportunities. Today, over 80 individuals benefit from the symbiotic partnership which is mutually beneficial for both entities, 32% of the ASD individuals are employed, 39% have employment potential and are enrolled in Work Training Programs, while 29% are individuals who gain valuable skills in inclusionary settings, but might not achieve competitive employment in the near future.
This collaborative model has widened the positive impact of both organizational missions, while improving the quality of life for all people across the entire autism spectrum. 100% of The Nicholas Center participants have I/DD, 94% have a primary diagnosis of Autism. Program participants come from diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds and primarily reside in Nassau County (Long Island), New York.
Recently, The Nicholas Center and Spectrum Designs were encouraged to replicate their partnership "model" into Westchester County, NY.
The expansion proposal was strongly recommended by the Mid-Hudson Regional Economic Development Council (REDC) and ultimately resulted in the New York State Governor awarding $240,000 of capital funding in December 2019. The REDC grant will support a portion of the construction and equipment needs for the 8,000 square foot facility in Pleasantville. Additionally, an aggressive Capital Campaign has resulted in over $500,000 of additional private support. Fourteen “Founding Families” in Westchester committed to bringing both The Nicholas Center and Spectrum Designs to the region. In 2020, both organizations expanded services and opened locations in Pleasantville, NY.
In year 10, The Nicholas Center provided over 120 individuals with Autism, education, opportunity and support through personalized programming and services. Our participants grew in confidence, communication and vocational skills. Covid presented challenges – highlighting vulnerabilities of our at-risk population and our ability to best support them.
Our challenges included staffing shortages, affecting our capability to gain and retain personnel and the in-ability to host fundraisers, hindering our bottom-line. Your continued support helps us immeasurably.
Despite the pandemic, we reached impressive milestones in 2021 – we opened our facility in Westchester, piloted micro-businesses – administrative and fulfillment services and engaged in 26 community partnerships. Co-Founder, Stella Spanakos, testified at the first NYS Assembly Hearing on Employment Opportunities for Individuals with Disabilities, and we were awarded over $120,000 from The Department of Labor to train and elevate our Direct Support Workforce.
The Nicholas Center (TNC) provided 140 young adults with year-round, full day programming and services across 2 counties in New York State offering individuals, a robust schedule of opportunities to foster meaningful and personalized growth.
In 2023, TNC launched a new vocational program - Culinary Arts and the TNC Chocolate Lab...participants learn culinary skills and all about how to chocolate assorted treats. A "White Coat" ceremony was held when the Lab opened. Agents of Humanity, the TNC Podcast launched this year - the podcast, hosted by 4 Autistic individuals asks, "What do you do to make the world a better place?" Guests have included an elected official, a Police Chief, a social rights attourney and more! Our 1st Annual Spring Gala to benefit TNC in Westchester was sold out and honored the Pleasantville Poice Chief! Port Provides Powered by the Nicholas Center sourced, packed and distributed clenaing supplies, personal care items and meat to 1,400 neighbors in need. The group was visited by PIX11's Mr. G and Channel 12 News.
"Our individuals were taught the hard and soft skills needed to gain and retain paid work. Opportunities for self-expression include producing and hosting our weekly news program, Nicholas Center News (NCN), and our podcast, Agents of Humanity, creative, culinary and musical art endeavors, exploring and beautifying our shorelines and main streets.
By engaging in community stewardship projects, our individuals help local non-profits deliver necessities to those in need, care for animals in shelters, and cultivate vegetables to donate to local food pantries, inlcuding the newest program, Port Provides Powered by The Nicholas Center - where participants source, organize, pack and deliver cleaning supplies and personal care items to 1,400 neighbors in need.