In a room no larger than a walk-in closet, a group works on high-tech gadgets from 3-D printers to computers built from scratch.
Ryan Sorrells, 31, shows a puzzle box he made for his mother’s birthday using a laser cutter.
Here, in the basement at Hacienda Healthcare in Phoenix, Sorrells has found his niche and it may just lead to employment for him and the other adults with autism.
More than 7 in 10 adults with autism are denied employment opportunities, according to the Autism Society of Southern Arizona. That’s particularly troublesome as more than 500,000 children with autism will enter adulthood over the next decade. Hacienda’s Technology Implementation Program (TIP) hopes to improve the odds by teaching skills to obtain competitive jobs in the tech industry.
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Sorrells joined the program in 2016 after trying housekeeping and other vocational training programs.
“All those jobs never felt like careers, they felt like dead-ends,” he said. “Here I feel like there are so many possibilities.”
The possibilities should expand further when the program moves into a new space at TechShop Chandler in the coming months. The tech-savvy group already heads to downtown Chandler routinely to use equipment at the shop that acts as an entrepreneur hub for tech startups.
The TechShop’s tools, including the laser cutter Sorrells used to make the gift for his mom, have been pivotal to the program.
“We couldn’t do what we do without them,” said Tom Burick, a former robot maker, who launched the Hacienda program nearly three years ago.
The technology classes are one of about a dozen vocational training programs for adults with disabilities offered through Hacienda Healthcare, which Ilene Butler founded in her home 50 years ago.
Today, the campus has more than 40 programs, five separate non-profits and a children’s hospital in Mesa, serving over 2,550 people daily.
And in a tight space in the basement, it gave Burick room to grow the technology program.
A half-dozen men worked on projects, many which benefit the Hacienda community, including 3-D-printed fidget spinners.
“We always look for practical applications for tech,” Burick said.
That includes a project that 29-year-old Tommy Niemiec created called “Eye Draw.”
He was looking for a way to help Hacienda residents who have limited mobility. After some research, Niemiec discovered a program that tracked eye movements and taught himself how to use it. He then combined the system with a webcam that tracked a person’s eyes, allowing their eyes to be the paintbrush on a digital canvas.
His creation allows those without the use of their arms to draw simply by looking at a screen.
“I feel like no matter if it is perfect or imperfect art, that everybody has a talent,” Niemiec said.
The technology program is about giving people opportunities, Burick said. “Once that opportunity is provided, all those expectations are exceeded,” he said.
Building job skills
The technology program is part of a larger vocational rehabilitation program that Hacienda Healthcare launched four years ago to provide job training for adults with autism. Three of the 25 people in the program are “actively in the process” of getting jobs.
The technology program has helped one member land a job and another is expected to gain employment after finishing a computer certificate, Burick said.
The idea is to teach a variety of tech skills. Each person can pursue their own passion in tech, Burick said.
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For 25-year-old Drew Vranjes, he’s the groups go-to for fixing computers and phones.
A Hacienda employee brought in a MacBook that the Apple store estimated would cost $1,500 to fix. Vranjes used a trick he saw on YouTube and fixed it without spending a dime.
Some group members already had a strong interest in technology, but others like Sorrells considered themselves “tech illiterate” before joining the program.
“Many of these guys were never even given the opportunity to pursue these interests,” Burick said. “Now they can and we are getting them ready for high-paying jobs.”
Both Niemiech and 30-year-old Garrett Portfield now work for Hacienda, helping others find their tech calling. “It’s a dream fulfilled,” Portfield said.
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