New Bargersville boutique provides career opportunities for adults on the autism spectrum

BARGERSVILLE, Ind. -- A new boutique opening on Bargersville's Main Street provides unique career and educational opportunities for adults on the autism spectrum and others with developmental disabilities. 

The happy, funky, cool boutique - as described on their website - is the home to custom artwork of all genres, woodworking, dog treats, ice cream, and more. The people inside are called team members, and they are there to assist you. Just like the goods inside, the team members are "wonderfully made and perfectly unique." 

Jennifer Parker is the creator of this shop. She says her work with adults on the spectrum started nearly 20 years ago with her son, Alex.

"When he was diagnosed, we didn't know much about autism," said Parker. 

Parker and her family created the Autism Advocates of Indiana with the mission 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 autism diagnosis, treatment, and education. Her son loved the program Best Buddies in school and had a lot of friends, including his best friend, Ali. But when Alex aged out of the educational system, his whole world changed. 

So the Parkers 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. 

"We noticed one piece is missing when kids age out of high school," says Parker. "There aren't as many opportunities for them as adults, and we need to address that."

So with that need in mind, Parker says they created The Hope Gallery, the first endeavor for the Alex and Ali Foundation. It is named the Hope Gallery after their daughter, who lives with several health issues and is unable to speak or sign - but always has hope. 

Inside The Hope Gallery, customers will be greeted by team members on the spectrum. The team members will work with volunteers to learn how to run this business. They will 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. 

Parker says this past month; they have been working as a "soft opening" so the team members can learn these skills ahead of the grand opening. She says so far; they are doing amazing work taking ownership and interacting with customers.

"We want to show the community that these young adults can work, and can contribute if they have a safe place and guidance," says Parker. "It's something we couldn't find for our son. We want people to see that they have hope, and they have value."

Parker says they chose to open The Hope Gallery in Bargersville because it is close to home and the community has "that faith feel, and that community feels" they need for this project to be a success.  It also allows their employees to be able to get to work by using the Access Johnson County transportation service. They are relying heavily on word of mouth to bring people in from outside of the community to Bargersville's Main Street.

Parker says they are also partnering with other small businesses that employ adults on the spectrum, like No Label at the Table in Carmel. The Hope Gallery will sell gluten-free cookies from the Carmel organization. They will also sell handmade candles from a similar organization in North Carolina.

Ice cream will also be on the menu, and it is meant to be enjoyed in-house so that customers can interact with the team members and enjoy the shop. It's also pet-friendly and bringing dogs along for the trip is encouraged.

Along with learning to run the business, team members will have several unique opportunities for vocational training. Parker says they are bringing in individuals to teach computer classes, and just this past month an artist came in to teach the team members how to make mosaics. 

The Hope Gallery right now employs eight team members with anywhere from 15 to 20 volunteers. Their opening day is Saturday, August 4, from noon to 5 p.m.

The Hope Gallery will then be open weekly, Thursday through Saturday, from noon to 5 and also on Wednesday temporarily during the Bargersville Farmers Market from noon to 7 p.m.

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