Workplace

‘Miami is kind,’ says macaroon maker who will soon employ young adults with autism and other disabilities

From left, Lexus Baker, Silvia Planas-Prats, Erin Schmidt and Pedro Diaz show off a tray of sweet potato macaroons they made at JRE Lee's baking and pastry arts program.
From left, Lexus Baker, Silvia Planas-Prats, Erin Schmidt and Pedro Diaz show off a tray of sweet potato macaroons they made at JRE Lee's baking and pastry arts program. For the Miami Herald

Silvia Planas-Prats believes “Miami is kind,” so much so she started a macaroon baking business, which only employs young adults with autism and other disabilities — and chose this phrase as its name.

“The purpose of ‘Miami is kind’ is to dispel popular misconceptions about people with autism by providing them a place to work and to showcase their talents and abilities,” said Planas-Prats, 45, a Brickell resident who moved from Barcelona to Miami in 2012 seeking better schooling for her 13-year-old son, Marc, who was born with moderate autism.

“Young adults with autism can excel in the workplace and can make the companies they work for profitable,” she said. “As the mother of a child with autism, I know how important having a job and being independent will be in my son’s life.”

According to Rachel Smith, communications director at the Florida Department of Education’s Vocational Rehabilitation, the program helped 7,214 persons with disabilities find gainful employment in the 2013-14 fiscal year. Only 10 percent or 721 of these accounted for people with developmental disabilities such as Autism Spectrum Disorders.

“I was worried about my son’s future because as of right now, not many companies in the state of Florida hire adults with autism so I set out to create one that did,” Planas-Prats said.

A national study funded in part by nonprofit organization Autism Speaks revealed that young adults with autism are less likely than any other disability groups to be employed or enrolled in higher education between ages 19 and 23, with estimates ranging to as high as 90 percent.

“Within the next decade about 500,000 adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder will ‘age out’ of school and enter adulthood,” said C.J. Volpe, chief of media strategy at Autism Speaks. “But with the right support services and opportunities these adults with autism can find meaningful employment and be an asset to the workforce.”

Dr. Brian D. Udell of www.theautismdoctor.com, who practices behavioral pediatrics in Davie, where he focuses on children with developmental disabilities including ADHD and autism agrees with Volpe.

Udell himself has hired an adult with autism who works as an intern in his practice. “Most people affected with ASD are very clever and can be valuable employees,” he said.

“However, I believe staff members should be screened to ensure that they have an appropriate level of socialization — meaning they can take directions and not exhibit extreme frustration or aggressive behaviors; I also think the supervisor should have experience working with special needs personnel, and the patience that it may take to teach newer tasks.”

Planas-Prats is all-too familiar with the range of “behaviors” that can be displayed by people with ASD. She’s experienced it firsthand at home with her son, Marc, and throughout her time volunteering in different ASD focus programs, some sponsored by the VR.

Udell’s personal experience as an employer of adults with autism has been a positive one.

“They are diligent, reliable, sincere, on-time, respectful and appropriately attired,” he said. “Often, they are the best workers and offer suggestions that can be quite clever and helpful. Of course, each individual has their particular strengths, but it seems that memory, schedules, consistency and predictability are features that many share.”

In regards to whether a working environment consisting mainly or almost entirely of adults with autism would in any way hinder their development or skill level, Udell said: “On the contrary, I believe that in a situation such as the one proposed by ‘Miami is kind,’ employees with ASD will have reduced anxiety about socializing with ‘outsiders’ and will focus better on the job at hand.”

Planas-Prats’ “Miami is kind” business model aims to create the aforementioned working environment in which adults with autism can succeed. According to a Huffington Post article, “Experts have pointed out that people with the disorder often thrive in a job environment that requires repetition”, baking being a prime example.

“When I volunteered with the adult baking and pastry arts program at JRE Lee’s Education Center for special-needs adults I fell in love with the students, their charisma and desire to work, bake, learn and continue improving,” she said. “I taught them my macaroon recipe and when I saw how well they executed it, the idea for ‘Miami is kind’ was born.”

Her goal is to recruit the student bakers in JRE Lee’s baking and pastry arts program and employ them. Planas-Prats’ efforts are smiled upon by the Miami Dade Public Schools system and she’s in the process of submitting an application that if approved would allow her business to use the school’s kitchen to bake.

Pedro Diaz, 48, a third-generation baker who worked at Publix for 18 years is the program’s lead instructor and also backs the “Miami is kind” business initiative.

“I can count the businesses that hire autistic adults on one hand, so when they’re done with the training and this program is over, then what?”

From the classroom to the workplace

The baked goods made by students in Diaz’s baking and pastry arts classes are donated to the school system because they can’t be sold since the program is instructional.

But Diaz says his 20-student class is made up of bakers who are ready and willing to work and who “sometimes even cry because they’re turned down for jobs or feel excluded and rejected. They know their parents will one day die and want to be independent.”

Diaz and Planas-Prats agree that one of the biggest challenges for start-up businesses like “Miami is kind” is money.

“Money and the public’s realization of how important this is,” he said. “People hear about the concept and even listen to the business plan and though they all say they like it, it stays at the level of just talk.”

Planas-Prats is currently seeking sponsorship opportunities and business partnerships which would enable her to buy kitchen equipment better suited for the mass production of macaroons but despite the lack of funds, she says she hasn’t lost sight of the big picture because she knows the growth potential of her baking business and won’t stop until she accomplishes her goals.

She wants to eventually open a factory of about 2,000 square feet and equip it with an industrial kitchen, and employ dozens of autistic adults.

“Not just bakers but also packers, warehouse operators, maintenance crew, customer service reps and dispatchers,” she said. “Through our success we can inspire other companies to follow similar paths.”

Planas-Prats has already taken a few of the necessary steps toward making the “Miami is kind” dream come true. She set up the company’s website, www.miamiiskind.com, and has provided macaroons at autism awareness charity events with the help of two of the student bakers in Diaz’s class.

“I like working with Silvia because she’s a really nice woman, she teaches us how to bake and has patience,” said one of the students, Anthony Cazanove, 22, who takes two buses to attend classes at JRE Lee Education Center. “I want to work because I want to make money and bake for customers and be able to do a lot of good things like make people happy on their birthdays and anniversaries.”

Cazanove says all the macaroons he bakes are delicious but recommends the chocolate mousse ones. Lexus Baker, 19, also bakes macaroons but prefers the chocolate dipped variety.

“I’d like to work with Silvia because she’s a good person and very helpful,” said Baker, who was interviewed by the Miami Herald in February about her involvement in the baking and pastry arts program. “I’m happy and I think that hopefully after I graduate I can get a job.”

“Yes, me too!” chimed in Cazanove. “I’d like to work and get my license and get married.”

Macaroons on demand

While Planas-Prats might not have all the kinks of the business figured out in their entirety, she has already started taking macaroon orders through the company’s website, depending on which flavor a customer selects a box of 12 macaroons costs between $12 and $15, boxes of 30 macaroons run between $30 and $38 and a catering tray featuring an assortment of macaroons is $75.

Flavor choices include original, rum lovers, strawberry lovers, lemon lovers, orange lovers, raspberry heart, stevia and chocolate dipped and chocolate mousse. Gluten-free macaroons are also available.

Patrons who would like to sign up for the “Miami is kind” subscription program through the website will receive monthly deliveries to their home or business. The company’s website claims “for every 50 Miami is Kind subscribers we will hire one additional baker and we offer a 35% discount as an incentive.”

Customers can choose between the large subscription featuring 60 macaroons for $59.43 or the small subscription option featuring a dozen macaroons for $19.66.

Donations to help cover start-up costs are welcomed on the site for the time being.

“We’re accepting donations right now because we’re in the most difficult step, the getting started step,” said Planas-Prats, who has already received several macaroon orders online. “But this isn’t a charity, this isn’t a nonprofit, this a business in which through hard work and their own efforts a group of adults with autism will be able to have dignified employment. I know once ‘Miami is kind’ is up and running the business will take care of itself.”

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