Popcorn for the People provides employment opportunities

Mia Frank certificate

By Alex Frank

My sister Mia, who is now 24 years old, was at a crossroads before being employed at Popcorn for the People. Most people who are autistic or have special needs struggle intensely to find some form of employment. In fact, the unemployment rate for adults with disabilities in America is 85%.

From age 9 through 21, Mia attended the Midland School in Branchburg, NJ, a school for people with disabilities. The curriculum emphasized job skill training and how to work  in a professional environment. After graduation, there wasn’t a clear path available to get a steady job and utilize those skills she was taught. Despite years of training, Mia was unable to get a job.

Coincidentally, around the time my sister graduated, a gourmet popcorn store which trained and hired Autistic workers, opened in our local mall. Just like any other job process, Mia was interviewed and given the chance to demonstrate why she should be hired–and she was!

Now, Mia has worked at Popcorn for the People for three years and is part of a work environment where she is accepted and treated with dignity. My family couldn’t be more grateful for her to be given this opportunity.

Popcorn for the People is a social enterprise of the non-profit, Lets Work For Good, that has been hiring and employing adults with disabilities since 2015. The employees are trained and hired to cook, package and sell gourmet popcorn.  The workers hand cook a variety of popcorn flavors including Cookies N’ Cream, Dark Chocolate Espresso, Buffalo, Salt and Vinegar and Chicago Baked Cheddar.

Popcorn for the People is the brainchild of Dr Barbie Zimmerman-Bier, created to provide accessible employment for their autistic son, Sam, and in turn, adults with disabilities looking for employment. In three years, the organization has continued to rapidly build itself from the ground up. What started off as a small popcorn store that gave Mia an opportunity to work has turned into a thriving business attending events in New Jersey & New York and selling popcorn nationally, through an online store. Furthermore, Popcorn for the People regularly sells at venues such as Rutgers sporting events, the Broadway show “Harry Potter and The Cursed Child,” Stop & Shop and Red Bull arena for the Major League Soccer Team, The New York Red Bulls. Being able to expand has not only helped the company thrive, but has also spread awareness.

Chris at Red Bull
Chris at Red Bull

What does Mia do at Popcorn for the People?

The workers are involved in all aspects of the organization and are placed in jobs that best fit their abilities. Some of the workers make, flavor and bag the popcorn to be sent out to the various events going on. They do this with the help of a professional chef, Agnes Cushing-Ruby, who donates 40 hours of her time a week to the organization. She teaches the workers how to make the popcorn and helps them through the entire process.

The rest of the workers are involved in selling the popcorn at events. At the different venues, the workers sell and market the product alongside non-disabled employees. This part of the job involves the adults with disabilities to socialize with customers, executing the sale by getting the customer to buy popcorn, restocking the popcorn, and counting money.

Due to my sister’s employment with the organization, my dad and I have also become involved with Popcorn for the People. My dad is the Chief-Event Coordinator for the company and helps run and organize the different events. To my dad, helping out with the company is part of his way of saying thank you for my sister having the opportunity to be employed.

For me, being a part of Popcorn For The People offers such a positive and fresh perspective. Working alongside these adults and seeing what they are able to accomplish despite their disabilities is inspiring within itself. For the adults with disabilities, being given the opportunity to be part of a welcoming community such as Popcorn for the People is an endearing opportunity.

Currently, Popcorn For The People employs 23 adults with disabilities, 23 adults whose lives have been positively impacted. Just like Mia.

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Alex Frank is a 20 year old college Junior at Kean University. He currently interns at Rutgers University. He is also an associate with Popcorn for the People. He can be reached: frankale@kean.edu

Popcorn for the People‘s Story (from their website):

Sam is a high functioning 24 year old with autism. He wants to travel, have fun and work like everyone else. “You may not want to work” he often says “but you have to work.” Armed knowing that the unemployment rate is 80-90% in the autistic population, we asked ourselves: where can a bright, energetic young man who views the world a little differently find work, fulfillment and happiness? Just when we were beginning to think the options were grim we spotted Sam gleefully tossing popcorn into his mouth while laughing at Monty Python. We decided to combine America’s favorite snack food with Sam’s passion and unique world view to create popcorn with a difference. We invited other workers with disabilities to join the popcorn revolution.

Soon after, we opened our first location in New Jersey to an unexpected influx of media attention. We joined forces with Agnes, a star chef and mother of an autistic child. While Agnes experimented with new flavor profiles, Sam cooked the popcorn. With friends, family and co-workers as our tasters, the word spread and demand grew. Before we knew it, armfuls of tins were flying out the door. We invited other workers with disabilities to join the popcorn revolution and soon after we opened our first location in New Jersey. With such an overwhelmingly positive response we decided it was time to bring Popcorn for the People to the rest of America.

1 Comment

  • I had not known that popcorn could get so sweet.

    [When I was younger I did like rainbow and the toffee-apple kind of popcorn].

    Now you guys are getting more into ice-cream tastes.

    Chicago Cheddar might just be my favourite. Or maybe Buffalo.

    That’s popcorn for this person.

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