Walking to the podium with unquestioning confidence in his stride, Kyle MacDonnell, accompanied by his mother Mary Sue MacDonnell and surrounded by hundreds of people, had a lot to say to the audience of students, teachers, administrators, elected officials, news media and others, considering he was almost completely nonverbal growing up. Among the numerous points of pride he discussed, he beamed when he said, “Last week, I even got my first paycheck.”
Having been diagnosed with autism at a young age, Kyle MacDonnell, 21, is one of the first adult students to go through the Palm Beach School for Autism’s Project Next, a collaboration with the Duffy’s Foundation and Kolter Hospitality, which has a portfolio that includes various South Florida Hyatts, a Hilton and a Westin hotel, with more on the way. As part of the project, the Duffy’s Foundation and Kolter Hospitality donated time and resources to help the school at 8480 Lantana Road expand its kitchen and culinary and hospitality programs.
“We partnered with [the Palm Beach School for Autism] in early 2018; we have a group of their students who come to our hotels and do a rotation of different jobs so they can get an idea of what it is like to work in a hotel with the intention that they eventually get into a paid internship program with us,” said Aimee Mangold, vice president of human resources for Kolter Hospitality. “The program is about six months, so once they complete that program, from there whatever students might be interested in continuing with an internship, we’re willing to take on.”
“This vision of Ann [Eisenberg, executive director of the Palm Beach School for Autism] really began several years ago, and she came to us at Duffy’s and said, ‘Listen, we have a problem, we have a lot of kids that are aging-out at 21, and what happens is they leave here, they go home and they end up sitting on a couch playing video games, and I know that there’s got to be a better way to educate these kids for the next part of their lives,’” said Geri Emmett, chairwoman of the Duffy’s Foundation.
“That’s how Project Next was formed. It’s really, ‘what happens next to these kids?’ and it was really her vision to come up with a few businesses that the skills could be trained here and work for long-term employment for their future. Some of that was the Hyatt — which was teaching how to fold towels, how to do laundry, how to stock carts, how to make beds — and with Duffy’s, it was about how to put ice in the ice bins, how to work the dishwasher, how to wipe down menus and wipe down tables — and really, all of this is within the mind that once the children leave here at 21, that they have some sort of employment for their future life.”
The program will make use of a new 10,000-square-foot kitchen extension, classroom, mock hotel room and other educational tools. It is open to individuals who are 18 or older and high-functioning, due to the skills and training required, according to Bobby Copeland, general manager for Kolter Hospitality’s Courtyard by Marriott in Delray Beach.
“We fold every single towel the exact same way, we fold every single washcloth the exact same way, and really, the kids on the spectrum, their mindset is more of repetitive, detailed work, so they’ve been phenomenal in our laundry department,” he said.
In Kyle MacDonnell’s last year at the Palm Beach School for Autism, he splits his time between the school and his internship, and though he said he will miss some of his friends at the school, he looks forward to continuing this next chapter in his life — and to collecting more paychecks.
After receiving his first one, he said he felt “important and proud.”
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