Empowering careers for people with autism.

As children, we were often asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Mary Krupa always knew she wanted a career working with animals. As an adult on the autism spectrum, however, Mary has had to overcome obstacles in her way of achieving this goal.

According to Autism Speaks, 50,000 teens on the spectrum enter adulthood each year and consequently age out of school-based autism services. Since autism is a lifelong condition, many adults are left with limited resources.

“I graduated from Penn State in the winter of 2016 and basically had a year or so with nothing to do,” says Mary. “It wasn’t a great situation for me mentally. The anxiety started coming back.”

Recognizing the difficulties faced by Mary and other adults with autism, former autistic support teacher Bella Bregar and her lifelong friend Cathy Prosek founded the ACRES Project.

The ACRES Project is a Centre County nonprofit working to foster independence, self-advocacy, and work/life skills for adults with autism. Centre Foundation supports the ACRES Project through an endowment fund, the ACRES Project Fund, which helps the nonprofit grow to meet the needs and facilitate the dreams of individuals, like Mary, who are on the autism spectrum.

“The one thing I wanted as a teacher was to have a classroom that felt like a safe place for students to visit,” says Bella. “My classroom was a safe haven, and that’s what I wanted for adults who were out of school, too.”

The ACRES Project’s programs are uniquely designed by adults with autism for adults with autism, although anyone is welcome.

“We don’t ask for a diagnosis when you come here. Not everyone has a diagnosis or wants a diagnosis, but everyone wants to fit in. That’s what we want,” says Bella.

One of the programs offered by the ACRES Project is their Work-Based Learning Program, in which job coaches help clients identify their career interests and obtain temporary paid work experiences in local businesses.

“The goal of the program is to allow our clients to foster the skills necessary to work as independently as possible, even if this independence looks different for each person,” says Megan McGrath, a Penn State intern with the ACRES Project.

For Mary, the Work-Based Learning Program helped her transition from volunteering to a paid internship at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center.

“The internship helped me expand a little more. Since all of the birds at Shaver’s Creek have disabilities, they are unable to survive in the wild but still need to know how to use their beaks and talons,” says Mary. “So I created enrichment binders to help staff and volunteers better understand how to meet the needs of each bird.”

Jason Beale, Animal Care Director at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, adds that hiring someone on the Autism Spectrum is no different from hiring someone without autism.

“It’s about putting the person in a situation where they can effectively apply their skills to meet both personal and professional goals,” says Jason. “As an employer, you need to provide clear expectations, necessary training, constructive feedback, and lots of positive reinforcement for a job well done. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Mary and watching her grow over the last several years.”

In August 2018, Centre Foundation’s Giving Circle members voted to award a $10,000 grant to the ACRES Project, expanding the Work-Based Learning Program. More recently, the ACRES Project was awarded $100,000, as the winner of the Centre Inspires grant to support the development of a community aquaponics greenhouse.

“Our original workplace program would only allow us to provide services to people ages 14 to 21,” says Bella. “We found that very few grants were available for people over the age of 21, so we decided to apply for the Giving Circle grant. It really helped get us started.”

The ACRES Project used the funds to create workshops on effective communication and job interview skills and to continue funding Mary’s internship along with several others.

With a degree in English and a minor in Wildlife and Fisheries, Mary appreciates her opportunity at Shaver’s Creek and strives to someday hold a permanent job in wildlife conservation.

“I like working here,” says Mary. “It’s fun. It’s a nice environment to work in and has given me a lot of experience, but I think it must just be the first step in my career.”