Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Doug and Julie Sharp

Autism Lights #243 are Doug and Julie Sharp.

Doug and Julie Sharp are from Johnstown, Ohio and have two sons, including a 12 year old son with autism named Daniel. Their dedication to make the world a brighter place for those with autism has taken them on a journey to set up an enterprise called the Lettuce Work Foundation (Lettuce Work), which will provide teenagers and adults with autism important work opportunities.  Doug and Julie Sharp are Autism Lights for being visionary autism parents and filling a need for young people with autism to transition into the workplace.
Education: Doug and Julie Sharp are both graduates of Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. Julie Sharp earned her Masters in Teaching from Otterbein University and Doug Sharp earned his MBA from The Ohio State University.

Work: Julie Sharp is a teacher at Oakstone Academy and Doug Sharp serves as a Vice President at Grange Insurance Companies in Columbus, Ohio.

The following are two versions of a production that Jenna Smith and Katharine Egli did for a photo journalism project at Ohio University in 2009 on the Sharp family and how their autism journey with their son Daniel led to the birth of Lettuce Work.

Smith:Egli project4 from Jenna Smith on Vimeo.

Lettuce Work: Doug and Julie Sharp incorporated Lettuce Work in 2007.  Doug serves as the Executive Director and Julie is the Program Director of Lettuce Work. The passion for starting an enterprise like Lettuce Work came from real needs the Sharp's discovered in their roles as autism parents and their involvement in education of autism students at Oakstone Academy in Westerville, Ohio.  Doug Sharp wrote this to Autism Light about their mission.
As we saw our students progressing through high school, Julie and I recognized that there is a significant need for additional training post-high school for many of our ASD kids. Even if they have plans to attend college, many of them still need additional help/training developing their social skills & communication skills outside the school. And of course, there are also students who will not go on to college that need vocational training and assistance finding work and succeeding in a work environment after high school. There just aren't enough programs "out there" to meet this need. We wanted to create a work environment where we could focus on developing these skills for our young adults with autism, and help them find other employment opportunities and live independently to the extent they are able. We worked with Ohio State to create our hydroponic growing business model, and will be selling a pre-packaged salad mix to local restaurants.
According to Doug Sharp the first years of Lettuce Work were "dedicated to market research, creating a business plan, developing a board, and soliciting donations to construct our facility."  A new facility for the business is currently being constructed and should be finished in 2013.  Doug Sharp writes this about the future of the company.
New Home of Lettuce Work
Lettuce Work is best described as a "social enterprise, since it is an actual business, but instead of using profits to reward the business owners, those are used to provide services to our ASD associates. Since we are just getting started and still under construction, we are starting to work with the Vocational Ed. students from Oakstone Academy in Westerville, Ohio. This school is nationally known for their programs for ASD students, and we are working with them to provide work experience for their Voc Ed ASD students. Once construction is complete, we will transition the students over to our growing operation, where they will get involved in all aspects of the business. That not only includes the basics of planting, harvesting and packaging, but also customer interaction via sales & delivery, and a lot of chemistry and math due to our hydroponic growing systems. Also plenty of exposure to computers related to running the business and growing systems.
The Lettuce Work Foundation is a 501c3 organization and has a board of directors made up of professionals in Ohio who bring considerable skill and experience to the organization (Source).  Donations are extremely helpful at this time and one may make a secure online donation to the Lettuce Work foundation through their website.  Lettuce Work is an approved agency provider for the Ohio Developmentally Disabled system. For more information on the mission of Lettuce Work you can contact them in these ways:

The Lettuce Work Foundation
PO Box 217 New Albany, Ohio 43054
PH: (614) 893-8029

Social Media: You can follow Doug and Julie Sharp and the Lettuce Work Foundation at the following social media areas:

Doug Sharp said this to Autism Light about his expectation that programs that offer work opportunities for those with autism will become more widespread.
The most encouraging trend that I see is that more and more businesses are popping up that fit this "social enterprise" model to help employ adults with disabilities. I really believe this business model is the wave of the future versus the "traditional" non-profit organization that relies almost exclusively on donations to keep its doors open. Given the current economy and the extremely high unemployment rate for adults with disabilities (70%+), these small businesses are a bright light on the horizon.
Autism Light asked Doug Sharp how parents can prepare their older children for the day when they may enter the workplace.  This is what he said:
They need get started in High School and let the child work through the change together with their teacher/job coach and employer. Progress is measured in inches, not miles and in years, not days. Finding a patient employer who is willing to work with them is critical. Get started before they are out of high school. So many parents think that somehow their child will be able to go on to college or easily find a job after high school just like they did. Unfortunately, that's just not the case. Be honest and realistic about your child's interests, skills and abilities and get started sooner rather than later. Don't put it off - you'll do yourself and your child a big favor.
Special thanks to Doug and Julie Sharp for making a difference for autism. As children age and the population of adults with autism increases the business concept represented in Lettuce Work can serve as a model for how to create a win-win situation for business and disability services. We expect to hear great things from Lettuce Work as it grows and completes it's facility expansion in 2013.

Autism Light honors diverse heroes to the world of autism.

The Photos in this post were used with permission of Doug Sharp

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