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Build Your Business: Shop Talk
Training Through ThreadsA branch of Eden Autism uses screen printing to help teens and adults prepare for life.
Robert Valluzzo, Eden Threads’ screen-print manager, says the venture has helped participants learn teamwork and skills applicable to a production-driven environment.
Eden Autism was started in 1975 as a nonprofit organization to help individuals with autism. The organization has made many strides in varying areas, including opening a school and offering adult services and various other outreach programs.
Addressing a clear need for services during an autistic person’s lifespan — from the point of diagnosis through adulthood — Eden has developed a broad scope of programs for individuals, their families, educators and other professionals. One such program is Eden Threads, Eden Autism’s screen-printing business that was created to help establish new opportunities, or — as the program puts it — “OpportuniTees.”
“Eden Threads and programs like it can empower adults with autism by providing them with skills and the confidence to enhance their employment prospects,” says Robert Valluzzo, screen-print manager for Eden Threads. “Entitlement to special education ends at the age of 21. Eden provides vocational training for its high school students, as well as job-training and placement services for participants in its adult day program.”
Valluzzo says the goal of both programs is to teach employment skills that, ultimately, will lead to paid work in one of Eden’s employment centers or in the community, either with a job coach (supported employment) or independently (competitive employment).
The organization actually was initiated by an Eden parent and his associate, both of whom developed the business model, trained the Eden Threads staff and acquired donated equipment. They also applied for and received several grants. Eden Threads completed its first decorated-apparel order in December 2015, with the goals being to promote teamwork, diversity and self-reliance.
“The venture has helped participants learn skills applicable to a production-driven environment and learn teamwork within an assembly line-style of production, thereby gaining and enhancing important group communication and social skills,” Valluzzo says.
Cranking Out Shirts
Since establishing an online presence in 2015, Eden Threads has printed thousands of shirts for local businesses, corporations, families and nonprofit organizations. “We have made shirts for commercial businesses, private events, nonprofits and autism-awareness events,” Valluzzo says.“These are popular items in our Eden Express convenience stores, which are located at our three campuses. Most recently, we created shirts for Maddalena’s CheeseCake & Catering, where individuals who attend our adult day and employment program have jobs.”
The organization also has created shirts for a local nonprofit’s members to wear when advocating at the New Jersey state capitol. New Jersey Partners in Policymaking is a leadership-development and advocacy-education program for adults with developmental disabilities who are older than 18. This group prepares the next generation of disability advocates to work toward meaningful change in the state.
Eden Threads also recently produced an order of more than 200 tie-dyed shirts for an annual softball event to raise awareness for the K.I.N.D. Benefit softball game. The order took six participants two days to complete. Valluzzo says those funds will go to Mallory’s Army Foundation, a group dedicated to raising bullying awareness.
Eden Threads regularly prints T-shirts for teams that are registered for its annual 5K fundraiser, held each October. Teams include parents of students, corporate sponsors, and student and adult participants.
Since being hired in August 2017, Valluzzo has relished the opportunity to work in the organization’s screen-
printing shop. His goal since high school had been to become a graphic artist. Instead, he earned a business degree and worked in the insurance industry for more than 30 years.
“I was sick with cancer (non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma) and recovered [to the point that] I could go back to work part-time,” he says. “I realized the need for some life changes and less stress. I interviewed for the screen-print manager position and got hired at Eden to run the shop.”
Valluzzo attended the 2018 Imprinted Sportswear Shows (ISS) trade show and conference, held this past March in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to network and learn more about screen printing. In an indication of the industry’s spirit of cooperation and
goodwill among members, he made new relationships and received support from key decorated-apparel industry veterans.
“When I arrived in Atlantic City, I took a pre-conference workshop with Charlie Taublieb, who was a great instructor, teaching me and refreshing me about graphic arts and how to do things simply and efficiently,” he recalls. “Charlie and I still keep in contact with [each other] today.”
At an ISS reception, Valluzzo partnered with Fred Stern of Oceanside Screen Printing Inc. and Alan Gerber of Plan B Promotions, both of whom own large printing businesses. “They took the time to meet me and discuss how they can help me continue to develop and improve my shop to run effortlessly,” Valluzzo says. “They invited me to visit their facilities any time, and I plan to take them up on the offer.”
Stern and Gerber shared their admiration for his dedication to working with the autistic community. This brought Valluzzo tremendous pride and today, they remain connected. Jay Margulies of AlbaChem was helpful in further introducing Valluzzo to the decorated-apparel community.
“Jay introduced me to Jay Jessup of Charles M. Jessup Inc., [located] in the tiny town of Keasbey, New Jersey,” he says. “Jay is now my newest friend from New Jersey and supplier of equipment and imaging items. I visited Jay at his shop and sat for two days with him to learn what I actually needed in my shop and what I can do to be super effective.”
Eden Threads historically sources blank apparel from national distributor S&S Activewear. Valluzzo met his local account representative, Meg Erber, in Atlantic City and they have since communicated via phone and Facebook about specific client needs related to styles and materials.
“S&S Activewear has a local warehouse where we simply place an order, and I drive 10 minutes to the facility and pick up my orders to save on shipping.”
Valuzzo says his focus for the future is to use relationships, mentorships and connections to learn, grow and develop Eden Threads. He is appreciative of the many connections and relationships he forged in Atlantic City, as he looks forward to the next conference in 2018.
His message is simple: “Thank you for helping Eden Threads grow.”
Jennifer Morrell is an award-winning writer who has written for a number of national consumer and trade publications. For more information or to comment on this article, email Jennifer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eden Autism At A Glance
Company Name: Eden Autism/Eden Threads
Address: 2 Merwick Road, Princeton, N.J. 08540
Decorating Methods Offered: Screen printing
Company Website: edenautism.org
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