Teenagers Logan, Ryan, Matthew, Antonio and LaShawn work at Northcoast Corn Creations, a gourmet popcorn shop located in Willoughby that provides employment training opportunities for students with autism and developmental disabilities.
On the day we visited, some of the teens were putting labels on the popcorn bags, while others worked on the shop’s latest product: dog treats.
Fred Frisco is president of Re-Education Services, a special needs school, and Northcoast Corn Creations, as well as an intervention specialist. He says he developed the shop around three years ago to provide a safe, constructive job training worksite for students who need to learn employability skills outside of the classroom.
“I am a teacher who fell in love with empowering others to understand special education as a whole,” he says. “The talk around special education is all about what is next. We want to give them opportunities to want to try to go outside those boundaries. The social skills are a critical piece.”
While he had other business ideas, the gourmet popcorn seemed to be a good fit for this learning environment.
In the shop, there are many flavors to choose from: if you love sweets, try caramel, banana and blueberry, or go for the savory flavors like cheddar and pizza, salt and vinegar, or white cheddar and dill pickle.
A colorful signature mix, which is inspired by the autism awareness puzzle ribbon, is called “Embracing Autism” and blends the fruit flavors. There also is “Captain’s Crunch,” a caramel flavor that’s available during baseball games at the Lake County Captains Classic Park in Eastlake.
The teens, who are from school districts around the region, work under the guidance of occupational and speech therapists, intervention specialists, teachers and other support staff, and help to produce and package products, sell the popcorn during store hours and provide customer service for online orders.
Kaitlyn Lieb, an intervention specialist at Re-Education Services who works with the students, says they are learning independence and vocational skills, but also the functional curriculum — math, science, reading and social studies — through basic job tasks.
“This is their last chance to work on this vocational aspect before they jump into after-school programs,” she says, noting most kids in the program are from ages 16-21. “(The students) are employable, but they just need additional support at the workplace. I think it’s important to have a diverse community in the workplace. They should have all the opportunities that we do — and they would really work hard and do a good job.”
Popcorn Gifts and “Coal” for the Holidays
If you are looking for a special treat, the retail shop has lots of options, including the new gourmet popcorn “Coal,” a black cherry flavor that you can provide to anyone who is on your “naughty” or “nice” gift list. Visit northcoastcorn.com for store hours and online ordering.