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Autistic man brings micro-business to Towson City Center

Colleges and UniversitiesBusinessLoyola University Maryland

Though it's the first thing a person sees when entering Towson City Center from the garage, it's easy to ignore the building's healthy snack vending machine.

Aside from offering healthy alternatives to candy and chips, this new vending machine gives the Towson University Center for Adults with Autism one more way to service its target audience.

And the vending machine itself is owned and operated by one of its own.

"They really see this as an investment in them and their future," Rhonda Greenhaw, director of the Center for Adults with Autism, said of the participants they serve. "They've been involved in our programs on campus and have really enjoyed it, but they never felt like it was their space.

"Now," added Ray Stinar, administrative director of the center, "they have a home."

That home, which is part of the university's new Institute of Well Being, will be formally unveiled at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday, Sept. 12, at 4 p.m. The Institute of Well Being includes the Center for Adults with Autism, Occupational Therapy, the Wellness Center, and Speech, Language, and Hearing Center.

Both the building's corporate inhabitants and the student population will be good business for the vending machine operated by Adam Dankner, an Owings Mills resident who lives with autism.

Dankner and his family began Adam's Healthy Snacks, an LLC, a year and a half ago after his mother, Hinda, said the family sought alternatives from the traditional job market.

"We felt, for Adam, that it would be nice if he could have his own job," Hinda Dankner said. "We were at a meeting where someone talked about vending, and we thought that might be good because he can sort of make his own hours, and he would have contact with the public, but it wasn't as demanding as a job that was regular."

The family applied for a grant through the Department of Disabilities, and researched healthy vending machines companies. The owner of Vend Natural, based in Annapolis, became intrigued with the idea.

Vend Natural agreed to start the family out with two units, and the Towson machine joins a stable that includes six machines at Loyola University Maryland, Notre Dame of Maryland University, and Sinai Hospital.

Itineris, a local company dedicated to serving the adult autism community, is partnering with the TU Center for Adults with Autism on several initiatives. Additionally, Itineris, for whom Adam's father Stuart serves as vice president, provides Adam's Healthy Snacks with a job coach who shops for and stocks the machines with Adam, as well as business support.

In time, Ami Taubenfeld, executive director of Itineris, said the company would be able to add staff under Dankner to service more machines.

"It's just so unusual for a university to invest itself in the adult autism community," she said. "The collaboration with Towson is such an ideal partnership. We have a client who wants to own his own independent business. We're the support agency that's helping him physically support it, and then the Center for Autism is the employer, the vessel for us to put the business in."

Such a commitment to the adult autism community represents a new frontier for the center and those they serve.

"Programming for adults with autism is a brand new area," Greenhaw said. "Kids with autism grow up and there's nothing for them. We call it tunnels and cliffs. By the time they grow out of the services of high school, it's like falling off a cliff."

Before the center moved to the Towson City Center, it operated out of a small office, using space on campus whenever it became free.

But the new center, including a functional apartment for teaching life skills, and what Greenhaw called a "substantial gift" that will be announced Wednesday, will allow for significant advances in the services Towson can provide to adults with autism.

Between the apartment, the building, and the surrounding community and businesses, the whole set-up is one large "laboratory," Stinar said.

"Our programming has been based on developing programs on campus where we have an interest with the various disciplines to match up with," Stinar said. "Now, we're moving into the area of work and life skills, and … we have all the facilities under one roof. That's going to give us a chance to do more."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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