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New autism center partners with Suffolk to offer vocational training

The Suffolk County Department of Labor (DOL) announced

The Suffolk County Department of Labor (DOL) announced a new partnership with Winters Center for Autism, designed to expand training opportunities for individuals with autism to include in-demand industries such as hospitality, manufacturing and agriculture hiring on LI Credit: Newsday / Steven Pfost

Suffolk County announced that it is partnering with a new West Babylon-based nonprofit to create more workforce training for adults on the autism spectrum.

The Winters Center for Autism, a job training organization founded early last year, will be working with the county Labor Department to train and give adults on the spectrum the skills needed to land jobs. Industries of focus for the training center include hospitality, manufacturing, agriculture and food service.

The county will work to recruit area employers to help shape the training at the facility, connect businesses in need of employees with trainees to increase hiring of adults on the spectrum, and will use federal workforce training funds to cover the costs of training, said Rosalie Drago, commissioner of the Suffolk Labor Department.

The training center is expected to open and begin training adults in December, said Christine Ponzio, executive director of the nonprofit. Nassau and Suffolk residents 18 and older may participate, and, in most cases, training will be at no cost to participants.

For more information on the center and its planned services, or to submit an application of interest for training opportunities, visit WintersCenterForAutism.com.

The Winters Center for Autism is affiliated with the Winters Family Foundation, which was founded by the late Joe Winters and his wife, Michele, in January 2020. Joe Winters, who died early this year of COVID-19, had helped build his family business Winters Bros. Waste Systems into Long Island’s largest garbage collection business.

During an outdoor press conference Wednesday announcing the new partnership, County Executive Steve Bellone commented on the need for more work opportunities for adults with autism and others with developmental disabilities.

"We need action," he said. "That is so important that we’re a society that works together to give employment opportunities for everyone in our society."

Dollar amounts to be allotted will be based on need at the center, Drago said.

The center, a 14,000-square-foot facility currently under construction, is at 92 Mahan St., and will include indoor and outdoor recreational spaces for health and wellness activities. The center will also have a cafe on site open to the public and staffed by vocational trainees.

Prior to the pandemic, individuals on the spectrum and with other disabilities faced barriers to entering the workforce. As a result of the pandemic, Ponzio said, the situation has only grown worse.

"Every week for the last six months I’ve spoken to at least one individual or a family member of somebody on the spectrum who talked about their son or daughter or themselves being laid off during the pandemic with no prospect of return," Ponzio said Wednesday ahead of an outdoor press conference announcing the county’s partnership with the center.

"Diversity and inclusion make us stronger, and we can help people get better employees and also just become a better business," said Ponzio.

Also at the news conference were Michele Winters, founder of the new center; Patrick Winters, president of the center’s board of directors; and Sean Landeta, former New York Giant and advocate for people on the spectrum.

The unemployment rate for individuals with disabilities rose by 5.3 percentage points to 12.6% last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rate for non-disabled individuals rose 4.4 percentage points to 7.9%.

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