With quiet efficiency, the employees roll through the process of producing their product, from mixing, stamping and sifting to wicking, labeling and pouring.
In a corner of the Albemarle County workspace, Freedia White-Tinsley fills a candle-creating wax machine while coworkers Adam and Todd, Max and Ben apply stickers to glass jars.
Once the machine has liquefied the wax, an employee will use the machine’s hand wand to fill the labeled jars and create the company’s showcase product — scented candles.
For White-Tinsley, her current task is fun, but it’s not her favorite.
“I really like putting the stickers on the candles,” she says, scooping handfuls of shaved soy wax and dropping it into the hopper. “I like working here. It’s good to have a job.”
This is no ordinary edge-of-the-holiday candle-creating operation. This is more than a business. This is a school, an occupational training program and a job skills education center all in one.
This is VIAble Ventures, the business and training arm of the Virginia Institute of Autism’s Center for Adolescent and Adult Autism Services. The venture was spawned through a 2018 Innovation Laboratory, or i.Lab, program at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business that focused on developing microbusinesses and enterprises for nonprofits.
“We started making little candles that came in metal tins, and it seemed to take off. A lot of candles were sold to friends and family. It was just transitioning into different businesses and going online when the pandemic hit,” said Kate Gariepy, adult program coordinator for the center and the business’ supervisor.
Founded in 1996 by families looking for ways to provide education for their autistic children, the Virginia Institute of Autism works to help clients overcome challenges with individualized education, outreach and adult services.
The organization’s James C. Hormel School serves students between 6 and 22 years old who come 14 central Virginia school divisions.
Its Outpatient Behavioral Services help with school readiness, social skills, emotional regulation, completion of daily living tasks, or management of difficult or aggressive behaviors.
At the center, VIA’s adult clients engage in a range of programs promoting learning, personal growth and engaging with others. It also prepares clients with the skills to get and keep a job in the workaday world.
“One nice aspect of VIAble Ventures is that it’s a way to start doing some of the job training in a setting that individuals are familiar with,” said Lauren Haskins, the center’s director. “Then we can work on transporting employment skills into the community. This is a safe place to start.”
“One of the things VIAble Ventures did pre-pandemic and post-pandemic is to provide employment opportunities for adults who need extra support to be successful in a job setting,” Gariepy said. “We provide behavioral services and experts in autism and behavior so those things can be brought into VIAble Ventures relatively easy.”
Once the pandemic eased and society opened back up, VIAble Ventures reassessed its offerings.
“We officially relaunched in September and have been going strong since then,” Gariepy said. “We started really making candles back in June and experimenting with different jars, different scents and different labels.”
VIAble Ventures currently produces several scents of candles, naturally scented sachets, and scented bath salts. The products are created by clients who work for paychecks. There are about eight paid employees and another eight VIA clients learning the skills
“Our goal is to individualize instruction. For some, having a job and working and earning a paycheck are important things that they’re looking forward to,” Haskins said. “It’s sad but about 82% of people with disabilities who are employable are either unemployed or under employed. It’s a goal for VIA and VIAble Ventures to increase our support for individuals in the community as much as we can so they can start learning the skills they need to be employed in the community.”
“We teach the soft skills you need to be successful in a job, like getting along with co-workers, following rules and completing tasks,” Gariepy said. “We work on filling out forms and preparing for interviews and even practice interviews. Sometimes, for people with autism, these skills can be difficult. Most of us are expected to learn it innately, but it can be a struggle for our clients. It’s hard to describe and teach soft skills.”
So far, VIAble Ventures has proved successful selling to those in the know, including families, friends, staff and some folks who run across them online at viableventurs.org. They hope in the next year to expand a retail presence into local stores.
That expansion would provide more sales, which would provide more jobs for VIA clients.
“If a store stocks our candles, it gives another job to one of our people. The packing of the order, delivering the order, taking the inventory at that store and reporting that to the store manager and someone here would be a separate job,” Gariepy said.
“Every step, every process of the business, we’re trying to include one of the adults here,” she said. “It’s a job skill, delivering products to a business and interacting with the manager of the store and learning those professional conversational skills.”
“When you buy a candle, you’re not just buying a candle,” Haskins said. “You’re giving someone job skills, job training and you’re giving someone a job. It’s shopping with a purpose.”