All parents want their children to grow up and achieve their full potential, but for Indiana mom Shelly Henley, that desire was even more profound.
Henley’s 20-year-old son, Jacob Wittman, has autism. Though he takes online courses through Hoosier Academies, he can’t meet the academic level of completing high school, which means he will never have a high school diploma. As the mother of a special needs child, Henley recognized the uphill battle Jacob would face as he grew older.
“You go until you age out of school, then you fall off a cliff,” she told NBC’s “Today.”
When Jacob was 18, he told his mother he wanted to be a chef. That’s when the idea was set into motion.
“To go to culinary school was out,” Henley said. “Nor would he ever make it through a job interview. He would’ve been relegated to a dishwasher position, and that’s not where he wanted to be.”
And just like that, Jacob’s bakery, No Label at the Table, was born. The bakery, which specializes in gluten-free, dairy-free baked goods, also features another unique aspect. It only employs people with autism.
Four months ago when the bakery opened, they started with three people. Today, they already employ 13 autistic people for the space they rent out once a week to get their weekly orders baked and ready to go.
Henley is well aware that the odds of being gainfully employed are stacked against those in the autistic community — a mere 19 percent of autistic adults are employed, according to a nonprofit survey — but she has high hopes to make a difference in their home state of Indiana.
What’s the future?
“If we had our own storefront, we could eventually go to 25 employees, all on the spectrum,” she said. “Everybody earns because their work is just as valuable as those who are not on the spectrum,” she said. “I can’t tell you what it means for them to get that paycheck.”
Because Jacob doesn’t do well in large crowds, oftentimes, he stays behind and focuses on developing new recipes and creating the baked goods, while his mother spends her mornings at the local farmer’s market selling his delectable creations. She said the bakery has made a stunning impact in Jacob’s life.
“Where it was once a battle to get him to do his literature courses, he’s now constantly researching online for new recipes,” she said. “He literally walks taller. He’s a part of peoples’ weddings. He’s a part of peoples’ birthday parties now. It has given him a purpose in life.”
But he isn’t the only one.
“Not only has my son found his life purpose, but I have also,” Henley said.