Luv Michael expands its mission during the pandemic

When Tribecans Lisa Liberatore and Dimitri Kessaris first envisioned the non-profit that would become Luv Michael, they saw a community of autistic adults learning and training together with a tasty by-product: homemade granola. But that was before the pandemic shut down their kitchen and before they realized that competing in the commercial food industry was all about faster and bigger, which was the opposite of their goal.

So they looked inward at their own mission and instead decided to focus on one of the bigger issues facing the autism community: understanding.

Their new virtual volunteer program enlists high school students from across the globe to learn about autism and then, in turn-key fashion, teach others. The new by-product is donations to the non-profit, which keeps the education program afloat. And the granola, which their 25 employees are still cranking out on Walker Street, is the thank-you gift for every new donor.

The teen volunteers take a two-hour training course online, which helps them understand some of the crises facing autistic adults (not just education and employment, but also housing and rising rates of suicide). They then contact friends and family via text, engaging on the issues and advocating for more empathy for the autism community and building allies across the globe.

Every time they have a conversation, they screen shot it so the Luv Michael folks can validate their work. Each volunteer has a campaign page where they can refer donors at the end of the conversation. The students then have to write a reflection for the final step in the process.

The kids get their volunteer hours and the organization is able to spread their mission of understanding a lot further. So far they have had 18,000 volunteers participate in 40 countries.

“Our goal is to educate others and inspire people to support the cause,” said Mark Biondi, a consultant working with Luv Michael on the program. “One of the reasons this is so important in the neurotypical world is if you don’t understand something, you move away from it, not towards it. The mission of the bakery is to employ and train autistic adults, yet they have trouble finding employment because of society’s lack of education about the autism community.”

The two Tribecans have also started another non-profit, one that hopes to address the housing crisis facing autistic adults who can no longer live with their parents. They have created US Autism Homes, and by the end of this year, hope to house 11 adults and create a replicable model for a self-sustaining group home that relies on education and volunteer partners to support the residents.

Lisa notes that each organization they have created started as a way to serve their own child, knowing that they were not the only ones out there facing these issues. The National Institutes of Health estimates that 1 in every 44 (2.3 percent) 8-year-old children were estimated to have Autism Spectrum Disorder in 2018. Rates are higher among boys (3.7 percent) than girls (0.9 percent), but the disorder faces all races and ethnic groups.

The family now runs a cluster of four homes in South Hampton, working with the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church as a partner. The residents choose their housemates and the families are working together to provide a life of safety, independence and joy, and the home will hopefully become a center for community engagement through the partner organizations.

“Where does the autistic adult work, and where does he live?” Bondi said. “What happens once the parent is gone, and what happens to me when my parent is gone? The current options are terrible – 5000 people on a waiting list in New York alone. Lisa just thought there has to be a better option.”


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