Noah Keener, 19, wraps the cookies and brownies you see on the counter at the McAlister’s Deli at the corner of U.S. 36 and Raceway Road. He began working at McAlister’s through a work study program at Avon High School but was hired as a paid employee in May 2016.
“It’s such a blessing for our family,” said his mom, Jen Keener. “We didn’t know this could turn into a paid position.”
Noah takes his job very seriously. The teen typically works three days a week, two hours at a time and wraps hundreds of cookies per shift. The most cookies he’s ever wrapped is 504 cookies in one, two-hour shift.
Noah’s face lights up when he talks about his duties. He said wrapping the chocolate chip cookies are his favorite.
“There’s a lot of work to do,” said Noah, with a big smile.
He often is assigned other tasks such as portioning the cheese and chicken, and putting the labels on the tea jugs.
“He’s diligent,” said his dad, Ryan Keener. “He stays focused, and he doesn’t take breaks.”
“Noah’s an amazing person,” said General Manager Mike Bredlow. “He gets along with everyone at work. He always brings a smile, which is contagious, and everyone at work enjoys seeing him every day. He’s just a great human being.”
Fellow employees said Noah has boosted morale around the restaurant and has become an important part of the McAlister’s team.
“We’ve thanked them [the managers] so many times and told them what a blessing it is for Noah to work there, and they’ve told us the blessing goes both ways,” Jen said.
The Keeners said it’s not just a great work environment for Noah, but they are proud McAlister’s supports Autism Speaks, the world’s leading autism and advocacy organization. In August 2016, the fast food chain turned its fan-favorite famous sugar cookies blue, the organization’s signature color, and $0.75 from each cookie sold supported Autism Speaks mission: funding scientific research, increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorder and advocating for the needs of people with autism and their families.
Originally from Bloomington, the Keeners didn’t plan to move to Avon.
“I know why God brought us to Avon – for Noah’s education,” Jen said. “All the people we have met along the way have influenced Noah.”
The family moved to Avon when Noah was 4-years old, 2 years after being diagnosed with autism. When Noah aged out of First Steps, his parents enrolled him in the Developmental Preschool. Jen said he had a solid foundation in elementary school and intermediate and middle school before entering high school.
As a member of the AHS Work Study Program, Noah had the opportunities to receive vocational training. Jen said he worked the breakfast cart his freshman and sophomore year.
“There were four different jobs: cart pusher, stocker, door knocker and money taker,” she said.
Some of the internships Noah had through the AHS Work Study Program are working at Gleaner’s Food Bank, Avon Education Foundation Bookstore, AIS West Cafeteria, Plainfield Aquatic Center, Avon YMCA, coffee delivery services at AHS for teachers and McAlister’s Deli.
Jen credits Avon Community School Corporation for Noah’s education and helping him become as independent as he is today.
“The best thing that ever happened to us was moving here and getting him into the Avon school system,” Jen said.
Avon High School Resource Department Transition Coordinator Kimberly Lobosky said Avon Community Schools has a cutting-edge program to help those with disabilities.
“It’s not cookie cutter,” Lobosky said. “We can provide a hybrid of services to help meet any of the different needs of each student.”
His family said the relationship Noah fostered with one of the teachers at Avon has made an enormous impact on his life.
“I first met Noah in third grade and we were re-introduced in sixth, and he has been part of my story ever since,” Lobosky said. “This year has been especially profound for me, getting to be involved in the planning of Noah’s future. I have truly been blessed to have moved up through the years with him to witness Noah’s personality come to fruition. He has grown from a rigid, clock-watching kid that giggled when stating people’s names wrong on purpose, to a dependable, flexible, proactive worker who is compassionate and funny all at the same time.”
Recently, Noah also began another work-study internship at the Hendricks Regional Health YMCA. He assists in the wellness center by folding towels and wiping down machines.
The teen has diverse interests including playing the keyboard, guitar, rooting for the Pacers and IU.
“Someone recently asked him if he wanted to go to a Colts game and he said, ‘no, thank you,’” Jen said. “But if you asked him to go to an IU game, he’d be in the car!”
Worshipping at Traders Point Christian Church is also important to Noah. He even went to a special needs prom last fall with a neighborhood friend. The prom included a meal, a karaoke area and games.
“They made everyone feel special, it was very cool,” Ryan said.
Noah even got up and sang karaoke in front of 200 people. “It was way out of the box for him to do something like that,” Jen said. “He sang ‘What Does The Fox Say’ and danced.”
While Jen is incredibly grateful for everything, she is quick to say more advocacy needs to be done for the families.
“It’s been difficult to get all of the information we need,” she said. “It’s interesting what we know and other families that have children with autism know that we don’t know and vice versa. There needs to be some kind of central location, a pamphlet or something, that tells us the things we need to know when transitioning out of school and into the community as an adult.”
For example, applying for Noah’s social security.
“You have to wait until they are 18 and one month, and then you can apply for social security,” Jen said.
“It’s important for him to have money so he can learn you don’t live for free,” Ryan said. “He buys some of his own food, he pays us a little bit of rent. It teaches him responsibility.”
Noah’s enthusiastic, go-getter attitude makes him a pleasure to be around, Jen said, and has helped other people gain a more positive outlook.
“We could all learn a lot from Noah,” she said.