October 23, 2019
Recently, I shadowed Katie Noll and Tyler Haney on the job at The Ram Shop, WCU’s new convenience store that features an employment readiness program for students who identify on the autism spectrum. The shop is part of the University’s Dub-C Autism Program, also known as D-CAP, which provides support to students with autism to increase their retention and graduation rates, as well as help them secure gainful employment post-graduation.
Read about my experiences here:
I started my shift at the Ram Shop just as WCU sophomore Katie Noll was wrapping up her regular midday hours before her 2 p.m. class. The shop was busy with WCU employees and students, browsing the display of Ram shirts and hoodies or grabbing a quick lunch or snack. As we worked the register together, Noll scanned a customer’s bag of M&Ms and $77,000 popped up on the cash register’s LCD display.
Noll is the first to acknowledge that she doesn’t like the unexpected. When things don’t go precisely as planned, she can get rattled. But as store manager Bill Marinelli performed an override and keyed in the correct amount, Noll calmly chatted with the customer and apologized for the delay.
A few days later, sitting in a storeroom that doubles as an office and break room, Noll said, “This job and the entire D-CAP program have really been helpful. I was diagnosed on the autism spectrum in my senior year of high school and it was like ‘Oh, so that explains everything.’”
“I knew I was missing certain social cues that come naturally to others and so the diagnosis made sense but, still, I was resistant to support at first. Now I’m happy to be part of D-CAP,” she said.
Located on Linden Street, The Ram Shop looks much like any other convenience store – it sells milk, eggs, paper towels, tin foil, snacks and soda. But this store is actually one of a kind. D-CAP, now in its fourth year, and the brand-new Ram Shop, have quickly become a model that other colleges and universities are striving to emulate. Currently, more than 60 universities offer a program like D-CAP and some provide employment readiness training. But none have their own convenience store at which students on the spectrum and neurotypical students run the business together as they learn from each other.
“Ever since the shop’s ribbon-cutting last month, I’ve been getting calls from other universities wanting to know more,” said D-CAP program director Cherie Fishbaugh. “Employment rates for college graduates on the spectrum are lower than for neurotypical students,” she noted. “Yet many people on the spectrum demonstrate attention to detail and high productivity – things that would make them great employees. They just need to get better at some of the ‘soft skills.’ This store functions as a training ground so students can master the social and professional skills needed for success in any line of work.”
Noll is a history major and wants to work in a museum when she graduates. Her dream job would be at a Smithsonian museum – any of them, as she loves them all. Her grades are good but sometimes Noll gets overwhelmed by class deadlines. Every week she meets with a D-CAP graduate assistant and together they create a schedule to ensure she accomplishes all her tasks on time.
As Noll headed off to class, Tyler Haney arrived for his shift at the Ram Shop. He and I assessed inventory, stocked shelves, and had a chance to talk, too.
Haney, 22, said he was diagnosed with Asperger’s as a young child. He also was identified as intellectually gifted. While he had lots of support inside and outside the classroom K to 12, his first experience at college, at a small Christian school, was less than successful.
“At D-CAP, we developed a plan for me around social skills, academic skills, executive functioning, self-advocacy and career planning,” he said. “Initially, I was required to go to a study hall once a week, a social activity once a week, and a group meeting with a graduate assistant once a week. D-CAP holds you accountable.”
These days, Haney, a senior history major, is doing so well that he is only required to meet with a graduate assistant every other week. Still, between his job at the Ram Shop and social events, he’s at D-CAP more often.
The secret sauce to the Ram Shop is manager Bill Marinelli, who is a WCU student, and just one class away from graduating this December. Although the launch of the Ram Shop was supported by Student Services, Inc. Marinelli is working hard to run the shop like any small business. He encourages his employees to develop marketing campaigns and otherwise help grow the business. Haney did just that, showing me a flyer he and other students created for a limited-time lunch special.
“The way we’re going to sustain success is to ensure that we give customers what they want,” said Marinelli. “We heard that people wanted bread and eggs so now we have them. We heard that people wanted gallon size jugs of water, so we have that now, too.”
Marinelli’s business acumen isn’t all that makes him such an asset to the Ram Shop.The 31-year-old spent six years working with adults on the spectrum for Devereux Foundation and other area organizations while going to school part-time.
“I check in with each employee as they arrive to see what their stress level is like,” he said. “And I check back throughout their shift to see if they need to take a break or switch from the cash register to another task, like stocking shelves. My job is to help these student employees get ready for graduation day.”
“We have a very special thing going on here at the Ram Shop” he added, as he looked around the busy shop. “You have to come check us out.”