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  • Writer's pictureRhonda Helgesen

February ~ Thanks for Showing Us Some LOVE!

We are excited to announce that we won Best of Gwinnett 2022! Our appreciation goes out to all of our dedicated supporters that voted for us.

It means so much to reach this achievement for another year!

Thank you from your friends at ACES!

I was honored to be asked to share the story of ACES with the online magazine, Canvas Rebel.

We’re excited to introduce you to the always interesting and insightful Rhonda Helgesen. We hope you’ll enjoy our conversation with Rhonda below.

Rhonda, looking forward to hearing all of your stories today. We’d love to have you retell us the story behind how you came up with the idea for your business, I think our audience would really enjoy hearing the backstory.

“What happens next?” This is a question every parent of a child with a disability has asked themselves as adulthood approaches. Over the next decade, about half a million children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will enter adulthood and age out of school-based services. This transition pushes individuals on the spectrum into a world woefully lacking in appropriate programs for autistic adults, especially those requiring an increased level of supervision. While the number of adults with autism diagnoses is soaring, there just aren’t enough programs and services to meet the demand.

As an educator and a mother of an autistic child, I was aware of the need for additional supports in this area. While I had begun planning for my own son’s transition by attending resource fairs and workshops during his early teens, our family faced his adulthood still without suitable options. A serious medical scare for me made me realize that the future was happening NOW! It was time to act and create the types of supports we could not find in our community.

I brought together several parents and special education teachers for a brainstorming session. It was such an inspiring and hope-filled conversation! All-In Charitable Events and Services was formed and we soon began our quest to work with individuals and their families or guardians to fill in the gaps in services for adults with autism in our community.

Rhonda, before we move on to more of these sorts of questions, can you take some time to bring our readers up to speed on you and what you do?

My background is in Early Childhood Education with 25+ years as a teacher. My professional certifications include Early Childhood Education, Reading and Literacy, Gifted Education, Special Education, English to Speakers of Other Languages, Curriculum Development, and Leadership and Administration. I am also a parent who has spent 28 years navigating the path of raising a child with autism. As an educator, advocate, and parent, I have seen the need to develop more options for autistics in need of higher levels of support as they transition into adulthood.

Can you talk to us about how your side-hustle turned into something more.

While I wouldn’t call it a side-hustle, I turned to a hobby as a source of revenue for securing the funds needed to begin focusing on our mission.

I enjoyed playing poker with friends in a local social league. It was obvious that charity poker tournaments would be a very successful fundraiser in our area. However, there are very strict and specific guidelines surrounding poker tournaments as a means of fundraising which can make it a difficult endeavor to manage. After a great deal of research and legal consultation, our organization developed a structure which works within the guidelines for our state and ACES Charity Poker tournaments became our first attempt at fundraising.

A very successful beginning was interrupted when the pandemic lead us to discontinue our events for eight months. Happily, our return received a warm welcome and our tournaments are very well attended. We currently host events in three local venues and average approximately 300 participants per week. These fundraising efforts provided the means to move into the next phase of our plan…The ACES BARKery!

Can you talk to us about manufacturing? How’d you figure it all out? We’d love to hear the story.

During the brainstorming session mentioned earlier, a special education teacher suggested the idea of having special needs individuals create dog treats. When the time came to begin implementing this idea, the first baker was my own son. As we baked the treats together at home, I learned to scale back and keep things simple. We focused on a single, well-received recipe, but offered the treats in different shapes and sizes and with a variety of embellishments. Our packaging was also simplified to make it more manageable for our special needs bakers.

Eventually, ACES BARKery partnered with a day program for adults with autism and began baking our treats in their building. I have enjoyed being able to work one-on-one with each baker and focus on valuable, personalized life skills as they enjoy the purposeful experience of creating and packaging our small-batch treats! As the they hand-roll, hand-cut, and bake these treats with care our participants are gaining the following skills:

  • Communication

  • Problem Solving

  • Fine Motor

  • Social/Behavioral

  • Career/Vocational

  • Independent Living

We look forward to developing this component of our programing by obtaining retail/commercial kitchen space and exploring wholesale opportunities. We plan to not only provide our skill development lessons via day program partnerships, but to also offer supported employment opportunities through an ACES BARKery storefront.

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