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Creating a Future for My Son with Special Needs

Creating a Future for My Son with Special Needs

After tragedy struck, Spanakos decided to use her frustration and grief to build enterprises that create integrated employment opportunities for people with special needs.

When people ask what it’s like to have a child with special needs, my response is: It’s like dark chocolate, bittersweet. My beautiful, healthy 9-pound baby boy, Nicholas, was diagnosed with autism at age 3, and from that day forward a revolving door of therapists came to our home every day until 6pm. To make matters worse, Nicholas never developed speech and started having seizures at age 17. When Nicholas was young, we wanted to believe he would “outgrow” autism, or science would find a “cure” for the diagnosis. But, as the years passed and reality set in, we started dealing better with the “what is” and “what needs to happen.” His options–day-hab, residential, supported employment–were not right for him. I visited many programs but started crying when I returned to my car after the tour. Then, after our lives took an unexpected turn, I decided to do something about this in Port Washington.

A tsunami of young adults on the autism spectrum would be transitioning in three years, with more going forward every year and New York state was most definitely not prepared. To discuss Nicholas’ future with my husband was painful. He could not accept that we had to carve out a different future for our son; one without a driver’s license, college, marriage, children, and grandchildren, but one that needed much thought and financial planning. Autism broke my husband’s heart, and then my heart was broken for a second time on June 7, 2010 when my husband boarded a business flight to Vegas, suffered a massive heart attack, and died at the age of 55.

Kobi Yamada wrote a book called What Do You Do with a Chance? The moral of the story is, when given a chance, you always take it “because it just might be the start of something incredible.” And that’s precisely what I did.

RELATED: Find resources and advice for parents of children with special needs.

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I had an opportunity to make the worst day of my life become the beginning of something incredible to help Nicholas, his classmates, and many others. I decided to close my husband’s business, sell everything, and use the proceeds from his life insurance to start the Nicholas Center and Spectrum Designs Foundation, both located in Port Washington. The Nicholas Center supports individuals with autism to lead full and productive lives in the community. Spectrum Designs Foundation is an apparel customizing business, specializing in screen printing, DTG (Direct to Garment), and embroidery. My co-founders, Nicole Sugrue and Patrick Bardsley, and I experimented with our first DTG machine in my barn and never looked back.

The relationship between the Nicholas Center and Spectrum Designs is the perfect example of how business can work with agencies to support employees with intellectual disabilities. Eighty percent of individuals with disabilities are unemployed but very capable of work.

We started with both organizations in the same building, and one DTG machine printing 75 T-shirts a day. I used to pray that I could pay the bills and support our payroll during our first two years but as the saying goes: “build it and they will come,” and so they did.

At the close of 2018, just eight years after opening our doors, Nicholas Center serves 85 families with vocational and community experiences, and Spectrum Designs’ client list has grown to include Uber, Google, NYU Langone Medical Center, Northwell Health, St. John’s University Law School, Town of North Hempstead, and MTA Metro-North. Spectrum Designs has impacted the lives of 70 individuals and their families and created more than 15,000 paid hours of meaningful work for individuals with autism.