Volume 27/Number 23; March 17/24, 2014
By Steven Feldman
Studies show that consumers are more inclined to do business with companies that support a cause that resonates with them, especially when price and quality are equal. This is one reason many business entities regularly publish corporate social responsibility reports for all to see.
There is no shortage of floor covering companies that align their resources—financial and human—behind worthwhile endeavors. For example, Shaw has embarked on a number of initiatives that support St. Jude Children’s Hospital. Mohawk and Carpet One back the efforts of the Susan G. Komen breast cancer foundation. Countless companies trumpet their efforts in raising money or building homes to help returning wounded war veterans.
One cause that does not generate as much attention—but is no less important—is autism. This disorder of neural development is characterized by impaired social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and by restricted, repetitive or stereotyped behavior. One in 88 children born today will be on the autism spectrum.
April has been designated Autism Awareness Month, and one of this industry’s biggest supporters of autism is FreeFit. Through his company, owner Dave Reichwein has donated more than $250,000 to help those who live with the disorder. “We are not donating to find the cause or the cure. Rather, we are looking to improve the lives of those living with autism.”
FreeFit’s commitment to autism not only helps those who are living with the disorder, but it can also help retailers at the point of sale. Explaining to the consumer that a portion of the proceeds from a FreeFit sale helps those with autism may resonate with her, particularly if the disorder has touched her life in some way.
Most of FreeFit’s efforts are targeted toward The Shops at Devereux, a prevocational campus-based program located in Devon, Pa.—15 miles west of Philadelphia and part of the 100-year-old national Devereux Foundation—in which individuals on the autism spectrum or with other developmental disabilities learn a trade or skill and engage in positive employment. Founded more than 50 years ago, The Shops at Devereux is comprised of several workshops that function as small businesses, providing opportunities for those afflicted to learn marketable skills in a realistic work setting. In addition, they practice positive communication and customer relations skills vital to employment in community settings. The program includes individual shops for flowers, embroidery, pewter, bikes and auto, which is where FreeFit is involved.
According to Leah Yaw, Devereux senior vice president for external affairs, the auto shop is the most sophisticated of the Devereux shops. The full-service auto shop offers everything from inspections and car washes to general services like oil changes, tune-ups, brake repairs and tire rebalancing and replacements. “This is not just about skills but also engagement with the public,” Yaw said. “FreeFit has been incredibly generous over these last three years. Dave came to us and said this is a wonderful program; he wanted to contribute and make it better.” Right now Reichwein is focused on renovating the auto shop, making it larger and more sophisticated in its ability to provide services. The grand reopening is scheduled for May 10.
Yaw noted that the auto shop employs about seven individuals with intellectual disabilities and autism.
FreeFit’s benevolence toward autism extends beyond the auto shop. The company has also donated flooring to other Devereux initiatives around the country. “FreeFit [flooring] is beautiful, incredibly durable and perfect for a variety of applications,” Yaw said. “We have it installed in residential settings, hospital settings and cafeteria settings. It has performed beautifully wherever it has been installed.”
It is no coincidence that Reichwein chose autism as the cause to which he and FreeFit would dedicate its charitable resources. His oldest son was born with the disorder.
“Being an engineer, I probably spent 15 years trying to develop a cure for autism and finding what causes it,” he said. “I traveled the world seeking the best doctors. No one knows the exact cause. Some people say it’s the shots they give the kids; some people say it’s genetic.”
Reichwein believes while finding causes and cures are important, he is more interested in helping people cope with their current situation. “Unfortunately, parents become desperate when they get the diagnosis. They listen to these quacks and waste years and money when there are programs in place that can help the children function in society. With my son, they initially said it was ADD and were pumping him with Ritalin.
“But, since he was correctly diagnosed, the methodologies used by the teachers in schools and practitioners in early development are light years ahead and very effective at managing this disorder. Our school system in the U.S. is more effective than anywhere in the world at helping kids and parents with autism. It’s not the end of the world when you get that diagnosis. There is effective help through school districts and intermediate units.”
The issue is that children can get assistance only until age 21. “There are many critical points in the life of a child with autism and his or her family,” Yaw said. “The diagnosis early on is critical, and identifying services and educational support as a child is critical, as well. Another critical point is the transition time when they are moving out of the education system and into adult life. That is a very difficult change. You work for years to get them into a good education structure, then all of a sudden education funding goes away and you have to start over.”
This is where The Shops at Devereux come in. “What I am trying to do with this auto shop is give the teenagers and adults structure and a job,” Reichwein said. “They really need to have structure and predictability.”
This is just the first phase of a process for Reichwein. “The grand reopening of the auto shop is May 10. Next, we would like to work with others to build a state-of-the-art group home at Devereux to provide quality care for individuals with autism.”
Funds will be provided, in part, by GTP Racing—Reichwein and other engineers dedicate their time to build promotional race cars. Their latest creation is a 2012 Dodge Challenger that will be entered in charity races and car showings around the country to raise awareness and funds for autism. The idea is to build the world’s fastest, street-legal American muscle cars and then recruit the world’s best drivers to do promotional events around the U.S. and Canada. Any earnings or donations from the team are given directly to Devereux.
“We have been very fortunate to have the support of many dedicated professionals in the U.S. auto industry who have embraced the concept.
To learn more, visit gtp-racing.org.
Devereux is one of the nation’s oldest and largest nonprofit providers of behavioral healthcare, serving individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and behavioral and emotional challenges. Founded in 1912 by Helena Devereux, the organization operates a comprehensive national network of clinical, therapeutic, educational, and employment programs and services that positively impact the lives of tens of thousands of children, adults and their families every year. It also provides public education and prevention initiatives that promote strong social and emotional health of all children. Devereux employs more than 6,000 people in 15 centers in 11 states, helping empower individuals with special needs to lead fulfilling and rewarding lives.