Visions of Hope, a Farmington-based organization that offers a free training program for adults on the autism spectrum, celebrated its third anniversary in August.
Tonight the organization is holding its second "Inspiration on the Runway," a fundraiser that also celebrates its accomplishments over the past 36 months.
Jessica Harmon, founding assistant director of Visions of Hope and retail manager for Dress 2 Impress, said the dinner-fashion show was begun with the intention of providing an opportunity for the organization's clients and donors to celebrate its efforts.
“Last year we did the first annual ‘Inspiration on the Runway,” she said. “[We take] our clients, interns, donors, sponsors and customers and we dress them in clothing from our store, and they have a great time on the runway, and we have an amazing dinner and we share our heart and mission to a captive audience. A lot of people that sponsor and come bring new people that don’t know about us and more people get to learn.”
The program has expanded beyond giving its clients the opportunity to gain work experience and developing people skills at the Dress 2 Impress Resale Store located at 117 E. Columbia St. in Farmington.
Founding Executive Director Luann Honerkamp said a lot of their clients have very limited life experiences.
“Visions of Hope started three years ago in 2016,” she said. “At that time we had a vision to help individuals with autism, teens and young adults in preparing them for the world of work. Since that time we have graduated 37 interns from our program which runs for 120 hours. We have a new group, 10-12 [clients] coming in Sept. 9. We are excited about that."
Visions of Hope started out offering its clients the opportunity to take part in hands-on activities.
"When they were doing their 120 hours, they were strictly here in the store learning how to do everything we do here, as well as going to the post office, bank, things like that," she said. "Last year we started a program where one day a week we had class.
"During class they are learning to fill out applications, how to build a resume. We’re filling out reference sheets [and] doing mock interviews. We’re going to businesses to see what goes on there, see if they’re interested in working there or if they have no desire to work in a place like that.”
Visions of Hope's goal is to get its clients out into the community, as well as provide them the chance to discover what other opportunities are available for them.
“Other things that we talk about during the class that I’ve seen a real benefit from are working on those social skills,” she said. “When you get the job, what are things you talk about at the lunch table with all of your coworkers, what are things you go and ask the boss about as opposed to your co-worker. What’s appropriate dress to go into work. What are appropriate things to do when they have social gatherings after work.”
Honerkamp noted that their clients are 15 years old and older, so that when they graduate the clients can be ready to go to work in the private sector. While their oldest graduate was 27, Visions of Hope has no age limit.
The Cleaning Crew is a relatively new program where their adult clients provide janitorial work for businesses "after hours." Offering an update on how the Cleaning Crew is progressing, Honerkamp said, “We are still doing commercial. We still have the same three graduated interns with us who are doing the cleaning.
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"We have four to five businesses we are working with, which is really enough for us right now. They are doing a fantastic job, they love it. They are always excited when it is time to go to work.”
The Cleaning Crew can be a long-term or permanent occupation.
“They can stay there for as long as they do a good job and they want to be there,” she said. “We were really just looking at interns who had graduated who would find it difficult or next to impossible to find employment out on their own. These three individuals definitely fit that. They are perfectly capable of working, but their lack of social skills were keeping them from finding employment. It’s an opportunity for them to still be productive and be a part of things and giving back, as well as earning some money.”
Harmon explained how Visions of Hope decided to open the Dress 2 Impress resale shop.
“The idea was that we needed a platform for our vocation training program to take place,” she said. “Several HR (Human Resources) people had talked to us, [saying] that a lot of people were coming unprepared for interviews and not dressed appropriately. They wished they had a program like Dress for Success.
But Dress for Success is very limited — not open to the public — so we wanted to expand and be able to offer interview attire, but so much more for our community. We also have a free interview-attire program. Agencies send their clients here, we outfit them for free. If they get a job, they get a week’s worth of clothing free for that job.
Visions of Hope is dependent on donations of clothing from the community.
"Everything is donated here," Harmon explained. "We wash it, dry it and steam clean it through our program. Interns also learn to tag items and how to specifically organize them throughout the store. We keep expanding things that we offer. We would not be here if it wasn’t for the donors of these clothes. They don’t let us down. Sometimes we have to ask for specific items that we need and that’s more on the men’s side. We have a lot of men shoppers.”
Dress 2 Impress has donors that supply clothing and some who donate on a monthly basis. Sixty percent of funding for Visions of Hope comes from the store. Hours for the store are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, and Saturday, from 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Harmon stressed that the organization still has room for growth and that there are plans to start additional programs. To accomplish this, however, Visions of Hope is in need of volunteers to help supervise its clients.
“Right now, it’s my husband and I doing the Cleaning Crew," Honerkamp said. "We work all day Friday and Friday night we go and clean until 10 p.m. or whatever. If we had volunteers coming in and capable of learning what we need done and are willing to be self-sufficient and take that on, there is so much more that we could do.”
According to Harmon, the organization often expands its programing in unexpected ways.
“Last year, my youngest son started Toys 4 Hope,” she said. “He’s been soaking up our entrepreneurship. He raises money and gives it all to Visions of Hope. It’s been around $2,000 in a year.”