Stephanie Lay, a single mother from Maine, sought out to teach her son with autism, Bryce, necessary life skills such as cooking. Yet, she never thought that her efforts would turn into a growing business that advocates for those affected by autism.

Just five years ago, Lay started Maine-Tex Grilled Salsa after receiving an overwhelming response on her Facebook page. The photograph she posted of her son grilling salsa ingredients generated order requests from friends, that soon expanded into order requests from stores, restaurants, and hotels that all wanted some of Lay’s unique salsa.

Bryce Lay grilling tomatoes in 2014 (via Stephanie Lay’s Facebook page)

Although the growing demand for her salsa posed a lucrative business opportunity, Lay wanted to focus on using her new business as a work program that would not only employ individuals with autism, but also help spread awareness. She told the Boston Globe, “We want to get kids to work. It’s easy to want to baby them, but if we treat them like children they are going to remain children for the rest of their lives.”

Eric Rohrbach from the Margaret Murphy Center for Children reached out to Lay about collaborating on her work program idea and has been working closely with the family since. Rohrbach introduced a young man named Bennett to Lay’s work program, hoping that Maine-Tex Grilled Salsa would be a good fit for him.

Stephanie Lay and Bennett in her kitchen (via Maine-Tex Grilled Salsa’s Facebook)

According to Rohrbach, prior to Bennett working with the Lay family, he did not like to talk to people, did not like when people said his name, and has sensory issues with textures. Now, Bennett seems to be thriving within the company and having fun. “When he’s here, he enjoys what he’s doing,” said Rohrbach to the Boston Globe. “He’s not looking at the time to see when his next break is.”

The work program implemented by Lay has not only helped Bennett, but also her son Bryce. He has had a history of severe self-injurious behavior and through his experience in the program, he has continued to grow and progress. Now, he is trusted to run the grill, make delivery runs, and sign invoices for store managers.

While they have created a wonderful business and program opportunity, the Lays have experienced some setbacks and criticisms. Earlier this year, an attempt at expanding was made but financial issues did not make it possible. Instead, they have continued to make their salsa from their home kitchen and have been turning away orders for their highly demanded products. With Nicole King, an employee, working the kitchen and making 300 jars a day, it is still not enough to keep up with the demand.

But this is not enough to keep Lay from reaching for the stars. Given studies showing that gardening can be therapeutic, she hopes to open a greenhouse so that her work program may expand. Her vision is to create a factory-like setting, in which everyone on the spectrum can have a job they succeed in. With her motto, “If it’s meant to be, it’s up to me”, Stephanie Lay will continue to grow her work program and continue to positively impact the autism community, one salsa jar at a time.

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