As the group walked along a brick-lined corridor on the side of the State Theater’s stage, Mariah points out the theater’s original 1921 exterior brick wall.
The corridor was formerly an alley next to the State Theater and she comments, “I can just imagine some mobsters back here.”
With the help of a Hennepin Theatre Trust tour guide, Mariah takes the group of four women behind the scenes – showing them the stage, dressing rooms, orchestra pit, lobby and seating area.
The tour is one of two Mariah gives on a weekly basis – the other is an Irish tour of St. Paul – through Erik’s Ranch and Retreats in Edina. Tour guides’ last names aren’t publicly released.
The nonprofit runs Erik’s Minnesota Adventures, which turns the idea of a volunteer on its head.
Companies, groups and people volunteer to be guests on a tour given by one of the six tour guides, who are young adults with autism spectrum disorder.
The volunteers are helping to “build a person” by listening, learning and interacting, which in turn boosts the tour guide’s self-esteem and also provides them with a paycheck.
Mariah has been working with Erik’s Ranch since May 2011. She enjoys giving the tour and meeting new people because she gets the chance to meet people with different perspectives, questions and comments.
“I learn something new every time,” she said.
Erik’s Ranch and Retreats was founded in 2008 by Kathryn Nordberg as a way to give young adults with autism spectrum disorder meaningful employment.
It’s a way to get the community involved and learn about employing adults with autism, Nordberg said.
There isn’t a template of how to hire and employ adults with autism, she said.
Employers can be reluctant to hire people with autism because they may have poor communication skills and need a support system, she said. If they are hired, they are usually put into menial jobs.
She points out that Mariah has college degree and has so much more to offer than required for a menial job.
“She shouldn’t be emptying garbage cans,” she said. Mariah, who has a degree in political science, does research for the nonprofit EduTrak.
People with autism has a lot of skills, but they’re splinter skills so they’re strong in some areas and less strong in other areas, she said. The idea of Erik’s Ranch tours is that adults with autism can give a tour on a topic in which they are especially knowledgable, she said.
“It’s custom made for them,” she said.
In turn, volunteers can see that it’s not so intimidating, increase their understanding of people with autism, and learn that they have a wide range of skills, she said.
People with autism will be a large percentage of the adult population soon. The 20 to 30 age range of adults with autism are the first of the increasing number of people to reach adulthood, she said. When Nordberg’s son Erik was diagnosed with autism, the statistic was one in 10,000 and now it’s one in 88 children are diagnosed with autism.
They need more choices and society needs to be ready for them faster, she said.
“People say we’re onto something and I think we are,” she said.
Although Erik’s Ranch and Retreats has been around for the past four years, it’s really gotten off the ground in the past year with the location in Edina. They’re getting the organization into a position to demonstrate the model works to foundations, she said.
They began first with a location in Bozeman, Mont., where they wanted to build a ranch. While the $10 million construction was going slowly in Montana, Erik’s Ranch was gifted a building at the senior housing, Heritage of Edina, where Nordberg’s mother is the CEO.
It was an opportunity to get the organization going more quickly because the building was already existing, Nordberg said. The Edina City Council approved the rezoning of the building in December to allow adults with autism spectrum disorder to live there permanently. After some renovation, they hope to have residents living at the Edina facility by this summer.
The Edina building will have 35 residents. Between Bozeman and Edina, they’ll be able to accommodate 83 residents. They already have a waiting list of 170 people, she said. They also receive requests from parents from across the country to have their children work as tour guides.
Since then, they’ve also been gifted more land in Montana. They plan to add tours once the Montana location is up and running, she said.
In addition to the tours, visitors and family will also be able to stay at the building in Edina. The goal is to have residents living in the building taking care of the guests, which will also provide interaction opporutunities for the residents, she said.
Erik’s Ranch and Retreats also operates a riding program for anyone with any disabilities.
Contact Lisa Kaczke at [email protected]