TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – A thrift store on Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa is giving back in a big way, funding vocational training, therapy, workshops and much more to help out those with autism in the community through their sales.
Jenifer and Scott Band are co-founders of the Autism Awareness Shop and the programs involved with the location.
Their journey to help others began when their son, Cody, was diagnosed with autism at 25-months-old. Prior to that, Jenifer had gone to school for elementary education, but began following her son on his own journey through school and received her degree in occupational therapy.
“When he was a little guy, I was like, ‘oh my goodness, I need to be in early intervention, that’s where I’ll make the biggest difference, that’s where I need to be,’” Jenifer said.
She explained there are very few options for a person with autism, who they lovingly call “friends” in their programs, rather than “students,” after they turn 22-years-old. That’s where Jenifer realized she was most needed.
Autism Awareness Shop has been designated as a non-profit since 2015. The couple raised the funds to open their location on Hillsborough Ave. in 2018. After plans for starting their programs for their friends, last year was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, things got off the ground this March.
Scott began raising funds to open the thrift store, which funds the educational and skill-building portion of their non-profit, prior to opening, through online sales.
Those who take part in the vocational program will receive experience every day in real-life situations, either in-store with customers, stocking and pricing, as well as handling online order fulfillment.
Chelly Levertt has been the store manager for around four years and is proud of what they’ve accomplished.
“Every nickel, every dime, every quarter goes directly back into our school for our friends to help the community, to help our friends live a better life and be inclusive and it’s super amazing, it’s super amazing to watch them work and light up,” Levertt said.
The thrift shop has two “sides,” with one being a standard thrift store that accepts donations from the community. The second side features different items, like collectibles from Funko! Pops to Batman figures, to fine china and higher-end cookware, to comic books.
Levertt said she’s “in awe” of the work ethic and determination of her friends in the shop’s programs and those she works with.
“They are hardworking people and they are reliable and they are loyal. Just give them a chance and you’ll see,” she said.
The Bands say that in addition to working in the retail store, their friends also receive life skills training and assistance, including a weekly grocery shopping trip, making meals and handling email accounts to learn about online and email safety, in addition to interacting with customers. Job application practice is also taught.
Brian, a young man involved with the programs and shop communicates through typing on an app on his phone. He said his favorite things about being at Autism Awareness Shop are “training for jobs and life skills.”
“Learning new things is fun!” Cody proudly exclaimed. His favorite job at the shop is sorting through clothes and making sure everything is hung up to get to the store floor.
They also enjoy their free time to relax and just hang out with their buddies.
When asked what she enjoyed most about her time in her programs and at the shop, program participant
Kiah told 8 On Your Side she enjoys “hanging with her friends and doing stuff like going to the movies.”
Jenifer is passionate and adamant about her programs and is excited to help more people throughout the coming years.
“Our friends have so much to offer. They’re valuable. They provide value to the workplace. It’s not pity. It’s because they’re amazing and they’re good at what they do and they’re loyal and determined,” she said.
The Autism Awareness Shop is located at 2908 West Hillsborough Ave.
More information on how the location is helping those with autism in the community, as well as how the community itself can get involved and their digital shops so others around the country can give back can be found online.