Workplace in Pennington designed for adults with autism

It’s another work day for Joseph Genova. He likes telling his family about his job.

“I like to talk about how easy it is and how I can understand what to do, and understand it, too,” said Genova.

Genova is part of the team at We Make – Autism at Work.

“We Make is an inclusive employment opportunity that’s offered to individuals in the community where they not only get to use some of the skill sets that they’ve learned in school and job training, but to apply them to a work setting and to have that job not just be a job, but a career,” said We Make Director Muhammad Siddiqu.

“There’s two horrible days that happen in a parent’s life that has a disabled child. It’s when they are diagnosed, and then, what’s going to happen when I’m gone? What we do at We Make is we’re setting it up where your child will have a full-time job,” said We Make Founder Tony Lesenskyj.

It all started with a father’s love for his son. Lesenskyj’s son, Colin, has autism.

“As he went through the system, the school system, we realized at one point he’d be aging out of the system. What would he do after that point?” said Lesenskyj.

Lesenskyj owns a manufacturing business called LMT Products. Initially, he planned on hiring Colin, but says he realized the warehouse could be a dangerous setting for his son. He purchased a property in Pennington and brought a line of his products to the We Make building so Colin and his friends could assemble, package and ship the items. In November, the nonprofit We Make – Autism at Work was created. Five interns, students of Hopewell Valley Regional School District, are part of a new pilot program.

“Our bottom line is completely tied to their development, to not only start within the process, but to learn as much as they can within that process, from general packaging, to project management, to working with Excel and being able to take what they learn at We Make to any other employer or just really know they have a welcome place,” said Siddiqu.

Right now, the students spend part of the school day at We Make. Eventually, when they become employees, they’ll be there full-time. Genova has set some long-term goals for himself.

“Maybe try new things aside from what I’m doing now,” he said.

The interview process at We Make is a bit unique. After receiving an application, the staff schedules a meeting with the potential employee’s family, friends, teachers, respite workers, anyone close to them. The goal is to get to know the individual as much as possible while eliminating the anxieties associated with a typical job interview. Once in the door, potential employees go through a two-week working interview that allows the staff to evaluate them and determine which project is a good match.

“If we say they were working on a project for three days and we don’t see that it’s really sticking, we can just change the process. And that’s the ability of our business to adapt our model to what aligns them with success,” said Siddiqu.

The staff wants to reward their workers for a job well-done and give them a break if they need it, which is why there are things like arcades games, a basketball court, exercise equipment and an employee lounge to watch movies.

“The coolest thing about working with the individuals we work with is you build an emotional connection to your employees, and as much as they’re vested in their goals and their milestones and their achievements, I am as well,” said Siddiqu.

Tony says all of We Make’s profits go back into the program. They plan on working with other manufacturing businesses in the future. The nonprofit hopes to hire 15 employees by the summer.

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