Rounding the Bend on Independence
Kennesaw, Georgia (Senate District 37)
Drew Acree wanted a job. His parents said he had to be able to drive first. He cleared that hurdle easily. In fact, driving was his passion anyway. He’s a huge NASCAR fan.
Now, he’s a fan of making his own money.
Drew’s mom, Anita, says she’s been delighted to find that he’s capable of even more than anyone thought. It’s been a surprise to Drew even. He takes a lot of pride in his work and clocks out on the dot. He considers himself “on call” at all times, and even left church early recently so that he could come in when a co-worker was unable to fulfill her shift.
(Story continues below after slideshow.)
Drew is a 20-year-old man with autism. He graduated from Kennesaw Mountain High School, which left him well prepared for his current job as a barista. His high school had an employment training component of the special education program that involved running an onsite coffee shop, The Mountain Top Café, which served the whole school. Students were responsible for taking orders that were emailed to the laptop, fulfilling them, serving as cashiers and delivering orders all over campus. Along with coffee, they served tea, hot chocolate and muffins.
These days, Drew works at Independent Grounds Cafe, a coffee shop in Kennesaw, Georgia, that is a fully functional social enterprise and supported employment effort for people with intellectual/developmental disabilities (I/DD). As of July 2019, they’ve been open for about a year and a half and are about to open a second location in Roswell. Drew’s favorite drink to make is a Vanilla Frappé. It’s probably his favorite drink to make because it’s also just his favorite drink.
Drew was one of Independent Grounds’ first employees, starting before the doors even opened by helping set up chairs and tables in the dining room. Independent Grounds was able to take full advantage of something that wasn’t going so well in Drew’s life. After graduation, he had begun the year-long transition academy back at his high school. To say he hated it would be an understatement. He felt like he hadn’t really left high school, but without some of the more fun and social aspects. While he was at the transition academy, he spent three days per week going to a local restaurant, helping to prep the floor. On alternating days, he worked at Walmart, checking that shelves looked full and orderly. He didn’t like it and wasn’t happy. “It was a no-go,” he says. “I didn’t like it.” He says he was bored and would have rather stayed home.
Opening day at Independent Grounds was a really proud day for him and all the team. They had more than 100 customers come through. Drew says he thought, “I am free!”
The way the shop is set up, there are generally 2-3 people with a I/DD working any shift. They have a variety of disabilities, including autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. At the same time, there are mentors, neurotypical staff, who work alongside them. Although Anita is a mentor, she does not work the same shifts as him, and they both like it that way. Drew works about 15 hours per week, usually Monday through Friday, 8-11 a.m.
Drew receives Supplemental Security Income (SSI), but he does not have Medicaid or a Medicaid waiver. His family was unaware of the Medicaid waiver program until now, so they are excited to look into it as an option for increasing Drew’s independence and perhaps getting a professional job coach.
Although he’d very much like to live independently one day, Drew currently still lives with his mom, dad and younger sister, Elaine, a senior in high school. They are working on structures to continue building independence into his life. For instance, Drew buys his own groceries and has absolutely no qualms with going to a restaurant and sitting down to eat by himself for lunch. One thing they’ve especially talked about doing is converting the downstairs bedroom or a space over the garage into an apartment for Drew. If he could really get out on his own, Drew would like to move to Lake Norman, near Charlotte, North Carolina. Why? Because it’s beautiful, and it would put him close to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Drew is perhaps one of the biggest NASCAR fans you will ever meet. He inherited his own car from his late grandpa, Bob. Drew decided to name it “The Getaway Car,” in honor of a Taylor Swift song. The Getaway Car is, of course, tricked out to look like a race car. He can rattle off names and statistics about NASCAR as if he were a sports commentator. He even speaks in metaphors like, “My life has gone 200 mph!”
Unfortunately, as is true for most any young person who is still getting to know the world, Drew has had a few little moments with his car, including spinning out in front of the coffee shop. Anita felt lucky that people who knew him from work were nearby and were there to help him navigate the police coming—always a stressful situation. To compound the stress, Drew told the police that he “wrecked The Getaway Car!” Anita laughs ruefully when she thinks about how the police could have misconstrued what Drew was saying. Fortunately, all was resolved quickly when his parents convinced Drew to hand his phone to the police, so they could help the officers understand Drew.
With that in mind, if given a chance to speak to their legislators, Anita says that she feels strongly that there should be the opportunity to put a flag on a person’s driver’s license to indicate that they have autism. Many people with high functioning autism can drive. However, a police officer may not understand that person’s communications differences and begin to unnecessarily escalate the conversation. With proper awareness and training, a lot of things could be easily avoided.
Additionally, Drew would like to tell his legislators that people like himself can and should be able to work, that their desire to work should be supported.
Interestingly, Elaine is thinking about going into the field of special education. Several of the mentors who work at Independent Grounds are pursuing related courses of study as well.
* * * * * *
Several months later, on a rainy, cold day in November, Drew is finishing his shift at Independent Grounds. The thing is, he’s in a different town. Lots has changed in the last few months.
The first iteration of Independent Grounds in Kennesaw closed its doors around Labor Day with less than a week’s notice to employees. It left Drew and his mom scrambling to find a new job situation for him. And not just any job. Something that was meaningful and fulfilling for Drew. They tried another bakery nearby in Kennesaw. Drew went in for a formal interview. Anita was hopeful because it was a business run by a friend. Unfortunately, they simply did not feel prepared to take on an employee with a disability. It was a true disappointment to them both.
Then, they tried a local warehouse, which makes the foam liners for clothes hangers that protect clothing coming from the dry cleaners. Drew did not like the warehouse environment. He’s a people person. He wanted to get back to serving the public as he’d had the opportunity to do at the coffee shop.
In the meantime, Independent Grounds had opened a new store in Roswell not long before it closed the Kennesaw shop. Drew and Anita, as employees of the other location, had come over to help celebrate the grand opening. Drew jumped in to help make drinks, even though he wasn’t on the clock. His parents didn’t really see the Roswell shop as a viable opportunity for him because it was so far away. Not being a person who takes no for an answer, at least not easily, Drew memorized the map and directions (because he didn’t want to be distracted by his phone while driving), waited until both his parents were not home one day, got in the car and drove to Independent Grounds in Roswell. He asked the owner if he could have a job there. Of course, she said yes because he was one of her most valued employees at the old location! When Drew got home that day, he told his parents what he’d done. They weren’t pleased with his insubordination, but they admired his initiative, nonetheless. At the end of the day, Anita says she felt Drew was really showing them what he wanted to do, that this was what he was good at, and he was willing to do anything to make it happen. They had to reward that.
These days, Drew is back to work at Independent Grounds three days a week. When he’s not working, he also helps out around the house, picks his sister up from school and works out every evening at the gym, where he lifts weights and does the arc trainer (similar to an elliptical machine). A sad change in their family is that their dog, Abby, passed away. She and Drew loved each other fiercely. Although they have a new dog, she and Drew have not taken to each other. Anita says it doesn’t help that the pup has snapped at Drew a few times. She’d like to imagine a therapeutic animal in Drew’s future, but this new dog will not be that.
Just like he went after his dream to work at the new coffee shop, Drew also recently achieved another long-term goal. After working and saving his money for four years, Drew traveled to Talladega, Alabama to participate in the Richard Petty Driving Experience. He got to drive in car No. 24, which is the same number as his hero, Jeff Gordon, and he was able to push the speed up to 145.21 mph. Anita says she couldn’t even let herself go on the trip because she was so nervous. She scrolls back through a text exchange between herself and her husband as he gives a blow-by-blow account of Drew suiting up and then getting harnessed into the car. “I think I’m gonna throw up,” her husband said. “Me too,” she replied. Still, Anita is so proud of her son, first for his perseverance in going after such a lofty (and expensive) dream, and then for achieving it so very, very elegantly.
As the conversation winds down, Drew begins to stand up, put on his coat and look at his watch, though no one else seems ready to go back out into the blustery day. Drew has a standing appointment at his favorite lunch place, Hooters, where he eats when he gets off work. He’s got a schedule to keep, and he will not be late to lunch, where the serving staff know exactly what he’ll order and will take care of him.
After he leaves, Anita continues to sit in the coffee shop, scrolling through their most recent pictures together on her phone. She laughs because she knows she is not invited to lunch with Drew. It’s remarkable to her because she never knew how to go out to lunch on her own when she was Drew’s age. Her sweet little boy is turning into an independent young man. Anita is glad to still have him at home for now. “He’s so helpful,” she says with a smile. She talks about all the things he does around the house, sometimes without even having to be asked. Drew’s parents are still talking about whether they should build an apartment in their house or if they want to help him find his own independent-living situation. They recently found out about Just People, which is an independent-living village in Roswell. Her husband thought that would be a good place since Drew would be driving less to work. Anita’s eyes betray that she’d rather not have him so far away.
One way or another, as he just keeps rounding lap after lap, achieving one goal after another, Drew is clearly on his way to a life of independence, however he defines it.
Writer: Shannon Turner, Photographer: Kelly Blackmon