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Russell Schaufler got his job at Penn State thanks to the ACRES Project’s job training programs. (Evan Beebe/WPSU)

(State College) — Russell Schaufler never had a job he enjoyed, that was until he found the ACRES project. At ACRES Schaufler was paired with a job at the Penn State Egyptology Department digitizing 50-year-old research slides for professors. Schaufler says he’s excited to go to work now.

“It’s very friendly for an autistic person because I don’t have to work with a lot of people, so it kind of helped ease me back into the work environment, which for most of my life has been pretty toxic. So this is kind of helping me bring back a little confidence,” Schaufler said.

 The ACRES project in State College works with individuals of all ages and at all points on the autism spectrum. One major goal of the project is to develop career and social skills in order to combat the 85% unemployment rate among college graduates with autism.

Bella Bregar is the founder of ACRES, and she says what makes the program different is how they work with each individual to find the perfect job.

“So we may have a curriculum set out, but what we do for Mary is totally different than what we do for Russell or what we do for somebody else. So it’s all based on their needs, their passions. We don’t say okay we’re gonna put you on a job over here,” Bregar said.

Bregar, a former special education teacher, says she was influenced to start the program because most support services for autistic individuals end when they leave school.

“I was a teacher for over 38 years so I worked a lot with different disabilities. So I always kept in touch with students and I was hearing ‘Oh, well, I’m not doing anything,’ or ‘Oh, well, I’m in college, but I don’t really have any friends,’ or ‘I really don’t have any place to go,’ or ‘I have a degree, but I don’t have a job.’ So I’m like there’s got to be something out there,” Bregar said.

Megan McGrath is a recent Penn State graduate who works as a program organizer for ACRES, McGrath says the project offers several different programs and career paths for members.

“We have different groups that focus on socialization, and social communication skills, groups that focus on life skills, and then groups that work on vocational or work based skills. We’ve done an administrative role as far as finding work placements, building a relationship with them, things like that to get them into the community, as well as working with our clients hands on,” McGrath said.

Schaufler was a member of one of those job training programs, and he says he learned skills that made him more employable.

“Yeah partly the interview skills especially were very useful; I’ve actually used them in a couple of interviews I’ve done recently. And, yeah, just the enhancements to my resume and cover letter and stuff that I learned from this were very useful,” Schaufler said.

When the program began in 2014, Mary Krupa was one of the first individuals to get involved. Krupa is a former student of Bregar’s and today she works at ACRES as both a public relations expert and their go-to graphic designer. Krupa says the program has expanded to not just helping individuals with autism, but informing the public about what autism is.

“A big portion of this is we’re not just helping people with autism but we’re also reaching out to the community and kind of inviting the community to be part of this and learn about what autism is, what it looks like, how you interact with someone with autism. We reach out to police, we reach out to businesses, employers, the public basically,” Krupa said.

Krupa added that autistic individuals can become deterred when they notice how they are different from the rest of society, but it’s important to accept their differences as an asset. 

“We’re getting a lot of younger people unfortunately that are thinking their autism is like a curse, like, ‘Why do I have this disability? It’s so terrible. I wish I didn’t have autism.’ But they’re not seeing their strengths, and they have all these really incredible strengths,” Krupa said. “Yeah, I do have difficulties with socializing and there’s things I have a hard time with, but I like the way my brain works. It’s different. I think it’s beautiful.”

ACRES is hoping to expand in the near future. They would like to build townhouses on their property to give autistic individuals an opportunity to test out independent living.