Extraordinary Ventures puts people to work

Extraordinary Ventures
Extraordinary Ventures

Todd Cohen

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — On a typical day in a former office building on South Elliott Road in Chapel Hill, workers can be found setting up for events, vacuuming, sweeping, arranging tables and chairs, cleaning windows and making coffee.

The facility is operated by Extraordinary Ventures, a nonprofit created by two fathers, Greg Ireland and Marc Roth, whose sons are autistic.

And the workers doing the set-up tasks all have autism or developmental disabilities.

The nonprofit, founded by Ireland and Roth in 2007 to provide employment to people with disabilities, handled 654 events last year that drew roughly 1,000 people a week to the facility.

Those events generate over half the nonprofit’s annual operating budget of roughly $300,000.

Extraordinary Ventures, which employs a full-time staff of four people, also operates a laundry business it launched in September 2010.

That business offers a “fluff-and-fold” service to groups and individuals, including students at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Its main client so far is PTA Thrift Store, with the nonprofit on a pro-bono basis cleaning clothing donated to the Thrift Store for sale to the public.

In addition to the 25 people with disabilities Extraordinary Ventures employs on its payroll, the nonprofit also works with 20 students with disabilities referred by local high schools.

Kelly Looser, event director for Extraordinary Ventures, says business is booming after two years of renovating the building and trying to figure out how to set up and run the event center.

Rented from one of the organization’s founders, the building includes a 3,000-square-foot room that handles most of the events, including weddings, bar mitzvahs, birthday parties and other social events.

“We do pretty much everything,” Looser says.

The nonprofit, which serves people with autism, muscular dystrophy, mental retardation and developmental disabilities, provides training for its client employees and volunteers, many of whom also bring their own job coaches provided by the state through other agencies.

For its new laundry business, Extraordinary Ventures is marketing itself to UNC students through networking events and flyers.

Client employees and volunteers of the nonprofit, which owns and operates two washers and two dryers, will pick up customers’ laundry; bring it to the group’s offices; inventory the laundry; wash and fold it; and deliver it to the customers.

That business so far generates only a tiny share of the organization’s budget, with the event center generating over half, and the remainder coming from contributions and grants.

Foundations supporting the organization include Strowd Roses, a private foundation in Chapel Hill; the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation in Durham; and CVS Caremark.

In addition to putting client employees and volunteers to work, Extraordinary Ventures provides them with training on interviewing for a job, workplace behavior and other “soft” work skills, Looser says.

The group also provides social events for its clients, including dances the second and fourth Friday of each month that are staffed by volunteers, often from fraternities and sororities at UNC.

It also offers classes on topics like weightlifting or dance, and in the summer takes clients to Hyco Lake near Roxboro for water activities.

“We not only put people with disabilities to work,” Looser says, “but we also try to provide the best services for the community.”

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