When Valerie, a speech pathologist who worked with special-needs kids, learned that Blake was autistic, she spent his childhood finding—and sometimes fighting for—additional opportunities for him. Frustrated by the limited number of activities available to families like hers, she even founded the National Autism Registry to help address the problem.
While Blake was in high school, Valerie began researching programs that would meet his needs after he graduated, but she wasn't finding much out there.
Valerie, having recently sold her speech therapy practice and working much less, had the free time necessary to pursue her interest in baking and decorating cakes; she even trained for two years as a pastry chef.
One day at home, she noticed that Blake seemed interested as she began to lay out the ingredients for a cake she was going to bake. She showed him how to whisk the dry ingredients together and then to add oil and eggs. He even poured the batter into a pan and placed the cake in the oven.
"It was the first time Blake had shown any real interest in an activity," Valerie wrote. "Ever."
Valerie wondered if Blake's unexpected interest in baking was a message sent to guide her. She continued to include him in her baking activities and, during a course she took to become a chocolatier, in her chocolate making.
In fact, over time, as the two continued to work together in the kitchen, Blake displayed a particular aptitude for making chocolate, and as word got around about Valerie and Blake's culinary adventures, the parents of some of Blake's former classmates asked if their children might join in. Valerie agreed, and as the group grew, she began to sell the cakes chocolates they made to friends and family.
After three years of effectively running a small bakery and chocolate shop from her home, it became apparent that Valerie's current set-up was untenable. Friends suggested that she open a sweet shop and employ people with developmental disabilities, like those she'd been teaching at home.
Valerie was hesitant. She'd had it mind to retire, not to open a new business, but an afternoon spent making chocolate with Blake, seeing him fully engaged and even enthusiastic, convinced her to make the leap of faith and open a store and academy she named The Chocolate Spectrum.
The shop employs three adults with developmental disabilities and trains many more via classes and year-long chcolatier, pastry and barista programs. The employees do everything from molding chocolates to packaging orders and making deliveries.
The Chocolate Spectrum has been in operation for more than six months, and while it's ongoing success is by no means guaranteed, Valerie has no regrets. As she writes, "On difficult days, when business is slow or our website crashes or something else goes wrong, I pause and take in what’s happening around me. The delight of new customers when they taste our chocolate for the first time. The sound of laughter from the kitchen. Or the happiness and focus in Blake’s eyes when he is hard at work.
"I had set out to give my son a purpose and, in the process, found a new one for myself. Message received."