As a 13-year-old, Scottie Barnes Jr. enjoyed brewing and serving coffee drinks while volunteering at Southeast Christian Church’s Café 920.
Despite being a hard worker, Scottie struggled to find a part-time job when he turned 16 because he has undiagnosed Asperger syndrome, a form of autism that affects his social skills.
“We noticed that Scottie was quirky and antisocial growing up, but we also saw that he was incredibly smart and hardworking,” said his mother Suellen Barnes, a Southeast member.
Scottie applied for numerous jobs but was not hired.
“It opened our eyes to how flawed the application or interview process is for people with mild to moderate autism,” Barnes added. “If you don’t fit in this box or pass their test, you don’t get hired.”
In the fall, Barnes and her husband, Greg, launched the Next Step Training Program to provide workforce training for young adults with mild to moderate autism (diagnosed or undiagnosed).
“Those with autism are falling through the cracks,” Barnes said. “We want to help them bridge that gap.”
Next Step utilizes certified therapists and focuses on social skills training, cognitive training, physical therapy and vocational training.
Next Step’s first six-week training session met Mondays and Wednesdays at a community center in Simpsonville, Kentucky.
Those in attendance were taught to master food-service tasks like sweeping a floor, working in a kitchen, baking and doing the dishes. They also practiced their interview skills.
After completing the training program, Next Step seeks to connect students with local businesses who are willing to hire them.
“The goal is to walk with them in their first job, check in with employers to see how they’re doing and then figure out if they can move on to the next job,” Barnes said.
The Barneses eventually want to open a restaurant that will help those with mild to moderate autism with on-the-job training.
Applications currently are being accepted for the spring Next Step Training Program, which begins March 23.
For more information, visit www.nextstepky.org or call (502)-645-5919.