MIAMI — It was lunchtime at John A. Ferguson Senior High School and employees at the Falcon Gift Shop were hustling to keep up with the demand for snacks and birthday balloons.
Danny Vaca-Figuereo, 19, served customers while Anthony Gonzalez, 18, manned the register. At the other end of the cramped store, Gabriel Cartamil, 20, filled helium balloons.
Vaca-Figuereo handed Gonzalez a $5 bill so he could make change.
"One dollar five times," he said, reminding Gonzalez how much the cash was worth.
Gonzalez opened the register, gave Vaca-Figuereo crisp a one-dollar bills and marked the sale in pencil on an inventory sheet.
The young men are special education students who run the gift shop with their classmates, all of whom have autism or an intellectual disability. Together, the students order merchandise, stock the shelves, serve customers and calculate profits.
Last year, sales topped $20,000 — not a bad haul for a business whose customers are limited to students and staff at the high school.
"It really is like they’re the ones who own the store, and they operate it," said Ivette Amador, a special education teacher who oversees the shop with the help of three aides. "The ultimate goal is for them to get employed or possibly open up their own business in the future."
And every student has been able to find their niche.
Gonzalez draws advertisements, like the cartoon turkey hanging on the wall to announce the store’s new handmade Thanksgiving decorations. He doesn’t like to use color, so the poster is in black and white.
Jon Chiacchio, 21, is non-verbal, but he excels at counting merchandise and takes inventory in the afternoons after the shop closes.
And Vaca-Figuereo, who has a good rapport with his classmates and the clients, serves as the de facto store manager.
"I love being here," Vaca-Figuereo said. "It keeps me busy, and it keeps me being happy all the time and energetic."
His goal, he said, is to get a "good job" outside the school. Any job.
"I’m a good helper," he said. "I love to help people, help the community."
For many young adults with special needs, finding a job can prove difficult.
The Center for Autism and Related Disabilities based at the University of Miami and Nova Southeastern University serves more than 11,000 people in South Florida. They estimate that at least 80 percent are jobless or don’t work as much as they’d like.
"There’s a terrible unemployment and underemployment crisis in the disability world," said Michael Alessandri, the center’s executive director.
In some cases, young people with special needs don’t get the support they need to find a job that matches their abilities, Alessandri said. In other cases, business owners are reluctant to hire someone with autism or an intellectual disability.
Some prospective employers see hiring a special needs adult as a risk, said Pam Miller, the director of education and employment initiatives at United Community Options of South Florida.
But Miller doesn’t see it that way. "To me it’s really not any more of a risk than you would take on with any other employee," she said. "There’s uncertainty about any hire that you make."
And for the families of special needs children, the thought of finding a job can seem overwhelming.
By the time their child gets through high school, parents are exhausted, Alessandri said. They’ve spent years visiting doctors, trying to navigate the school system and providing around-the-clock care.
"You kind of have to gear up all over again when you finish high school," he said. "That’s some heavy emotional lifting."
Special needs students can remain in the public school system until the age of 22. But after that, many just end up staying at home, Amador said.
A growing number of programs, like the gift shop at Ferguson High, aims to change that.
When the Falcon Gift Shop first opened its doors five years ago, the business had a $1,000 loan from the school, five employees, five varieties of helium balloons and a handful of school supplies.
Now, the store has 15 employees and sells 45 different types of balloons, as well as snacks, perfume, jewelry, stuffed animals and homemade seasonal decorations. Every Monday, Amador takes the students shopping for new merchandise. Often, they’ll find an item they want to test out in the store.
"They tell us, ‘Oh, Miss, this is a great item, people are going to like this,’ " Amador said.
But the gift shop isn’t just about learning business skills.
Amador expects the students to call if they’re going to be late, rather than asking a parent to do it. Non-verbal students are expected to send an email.
And particularly for the students with autism, for whom adapting to change can be difficult, running a business teaches resilience, Amador said.
"They learn that you don’t always have to have things and you’re not always going to get things the way you want," she said. "There’s going to be change. Something might break, or we don’t have it anymore."
Even the store earnings provide an opportunity to learn social skills.
Amador can’t pay the students, so whatever profits aren’t reinvested in the business are used to take the students on field trips or out to eat. "We invite them not only to practice social skills, but also to see that the fruit of their labor is paying off," Amador said.
Similar programs throughout Miami-Dade help special education students between the ages of 18 and 22 learn job skills and transition to life after high school.
Some schools have stores or bakeries, while other programs are based at job sites including Publix, Nicklaus Children’s Hospital and Baptist Health South Florida.
"Employability skills, social skills at the workplace, conflict resolution, all those things that you may encounter at a work site but our students may not know how to respond," said Angie Torres, the instructional supervisor for the school district’s autism program. The district serves 35,000 special needs students, nearly 5,000 of them with autism.
It’s not just public schools. Private schools and nonprofits also offer similar opportunities, like the café run by students at United Community Options’ Transitional Learning Academy.
And then there are groups, like the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, that are trying to create businesses to hire special needs students after they finish the training programs.
Rising Tide Car Wash is one such local business.
The car wash was opened in Parkland in 2013 by the family of a young man with autism. They wanted to start a business where their son Andrew — who likes structure and repetitive tasks — would enjoy working.
Rising Tide recently opened a second location in Margate, and the family has teamed with Alessandri to develop an online course for other families frustrated by the lack of opportunities for their special needs children.
"We’re hoping to inspire parents not to sit back and wait for someone to offer their child a job," Alessandri said. "Parents and family members do have the wherewithal to create some meaningful work experience."
Other South Florida businesses, like The Chocolate Spectrum and the macaroon makers Miami Is Kind, offer similar opportunities for adults with special needs.
"We think everyone with autism can be in a competitive employment situation if they have the right support around them and if they have a business that’s willing to make the accommodations," Alessandri said.
Some of Amador’s former students have been able to find work. One has a job at TJ Maxx; another is trying to open a discount store with her mom.
Vaca-Figuereo is in the process of applying for a job outside the Falcon Gift Shop and has had several interviews at retail and grocery stores.
"Every one of our students finds something that they’re good at and they’re able to perform" at the gift shop, Amador said. "We hope that the community will give them the opportunity to test them out and try them out and see."
But too often, she said, her students are passed up for jobs, even with their work experience.
"Unfortunately people will look at them and when they notice that one might have Down syndrome or they notice the autistic characteristics of someone, they’ll say, ‘Oh, no, they’re not going to be good quality employees,’ " she said. "It makes me sad because I see that the community doesn’t want to give them the opportunities they deserve."