Made in Tribeca: Luv Michael

Lisa Liberatore was at an inflection point as a parent. Her son Michael, who is autistic, was nearing the end of his time at his special ed school out east and the school had no suggestions for his future. She realized he would soon be an adult with no high school diploma and very few prospects for how to contribute to the world.

“When you turn 21, you’re on your own,” said Liberatore, whose day job is as a medical doctor. “All I could think was, ‘What is he going to do?’”

Michael always loved to help her in the kitchen so she hired a chef a couple of days a week to train him formally. The two were working in their kitchen at home in Port Jeff when the chef suggested making granola, since it does not require knives and it’s something you can make start-to-finish in one day – and even package it up to give to friends. Her husband, Dimitri Kessaris, was the tester. That’s when the light bulb went off: she could do this for Michael, yes, but if they expanded it as a program, it could work for others as well. Plus they could actually start a little business.

She rented a commercial kitchen in Long Island City and started with three boys whose days were split between classroom time and production and packaging. A patient came up with the name; another helped with graphic design. She started it as a non-profit and built a board of directors, one of whom helped her build out the kitchen (“It would be ludicrous for me to build a kitchen. I’m a doctor!”) The product is now in 60 stores and they produce 10,000 pieces a week.

Meanwhile, the family had purchased 42 Walker seven years ago and as of February, live upstairs. They had intended to rent out the commercial space on the ground floor and basement when they realized they could just use it for their own company.

There’s a lot going on in this place – it’s not just a granola factory. It’s really a social services organization with an amazing physical plant and plans for a retail operation. There are now 12 employees who make $15 an hour. “It’s the importance of working, yes, but also the importance of learning social skills,” said Liberatore. “How do you show up for work? How do you treat co-workers?”

Some of the team members, she realizes, will be at Luv Michael for the rest of their lives, and will in that time hopefully grow with the support and encouragement they get there (there are two special ed teachers in addition to a chef and other supervisors). Some may be able to move on to other cooking jobs.

The whole operation is a huge accomplishment – I would suggest it has been a life changing experience for the employees. But that same old nagging feeling has gotten to Liberatore at times, despite it all. “Working mothers always feel guilty, we always wonder if we do enough for our kids,” she said. “But I have to say if we didn’t work, we would never have been able to do this.”

One more thing: Liberatore has written a children’s book about Michael’s story. There will be a book signing this Wednesday, Dec. 18, at 42 Walker from 6 to 7p. Stop by and say hello!


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