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BARGERSVILLE — Jennifer Parker is a mother on a mission.
"We don't want parents to feel like we felt when we started this, in that there's just no place for our child to be after high school," says Parker.
Parker began her journey helping adults on the autism spectrum with her son, Alex, nearly 20 years ago.
In school, Alex found his niche. He loved the program, 'Best Buddies,' he had a lot of friends, including a best friend named Ali. But as Alex aged out the education system, his whole world changed.
Parker and her family created an organization to increase public knowledge and awareness of the behaviors and needs of people on the autism spectrum. She says society has come a long way with an autism diagnosis, treatment, and education. But she still saw a gap in opportunity for adults with disabilities in the workforce and society.
"We decided we will just start creating jobs for them. They want to work. They want to be employed. They want to contribute to the community," says Parker.
The Parkers decided not to sit back and let Alex's world pass by him. They created the 'Alex and Ali Foundation,' which works to empower and enhance the lives of adults with autism and other developmental disabilities by providing vocational training and employment opportunities.
Their first endeavor is a small boutique on Bargersville's Main Street called 'The Hope Gallery.'
"We have been in business for a little over a year," says Parker. "We are a unique boutique for happy, funky, cool people, and their pets."
Inside The Hope Gallery, customers are greeted by team members on the spectrum or with developmental disabilities, and they are there to assist you. Just like the goods inside, the team members are "wonderfully made and perfectly unique."
The team members work with volunteers to learn how to run this business. They learn how to interact with customers, explain the store's mission, make sales, tag and stock items for sale, clean the store, and use an iPad system. The team members also craft goods sold inside the boutique.
The team members become more confident in themselves as they host field trips and other special events at the store. Additional job skills outside the store include farm work, painting, and warehouse organization through community partners.
Team member Chelsea Davis rings up a bracelet for a customer and wraps it in a gift bag.
"When you go for an interview, you want to tell them you have skills of knowing how to count money," says Davis, who has been working at The Hope Gallery for six months now.
Her daily tasks include running the cash register, knowing how much money they start and end with, straightening up shelves and assisting customers.
"Some days, I'm running it alone," says Davis. "Sometimes it's quiet, but then other times it's like hey, I can do it. It helps me get more skills of learning how to run a business. And this is what it's all about."
The Hope Gallery and the work by its 25 team members is becoming such a success, The Alex and Ali Foundation is looking forward to starting their next big endeavor.
Happy Hounds Doggy Daycare is what they believe will be the first dog daycare facility run entirely by adults with developmental disabilities.
The facility will be located at State Road 135 and Stop 11 Road on Indy's south side.
"They will be cuddling the dogs, training the dogs, cleaning up after the dogs, and then working with the customers as well doing customer interaction," says Parker. "They want to be a part of the community, and the community needs them. They are such wonderful people. The community needs to see that they have skills. They have value. They have worth. And we are showing the community that."
To learn more about The Hope Gallery, Happy Hounds, or the Alex and Ali Foundation, you can visit thealexandalifoundation.com.
They also have a Gala on February 15th in Greenwood, for ticket information, click here.