Dr. Libatore and Michael Kessaris at the Luv Michael facility in Queens.

Training young adults on the autism spectrum

Lisa Liberatore, MD, calls Luv Michael a labor of love. She established the nonprofit to help her son and others on the spectrum.

Dr. Liberatore is intimately familiar with the challenges of young adults on the spectrum. Her son, Michael, received an autism diagnosis at 2 years old. As he entered young adulthood, Dr. Liberatore became concerned for the future of her son, 19.

“I noticed that as these kids entered their high school years, teachers placed less emphasis on their academic studies,” Dr. Liberatore said. “Their schools also paid little attention to what their vocations would be, or to their interests and abilities.”

Dr. Liberatore, an otolaryngologist at Northwell Health’s New York Head and Neck Institute, considered Michael’s interests and skills. His knack for cooking and involvement in the family’s church, preparing food for events and festivals, made culinary school a viable option.

No local schools had the expertise to work with people on the autism spectrum, so Dr. Liberatore developed a vocational program dedicated to educating and employing young adults like Michael.

Working with her husband, Dimitri Kessaris, MD, Dr. Libatore transformed the family kitchen into a commercial kitchen and hired a professional chef to work with Michael two days a week. As Michael worked toward becoming a prep chef, Dr. Liberatore started a vocational nonprofit that offers culinary, sales and life-skills training and employs young adults on the spectrum. The parents named the new organization Luv Michael -- a name inspired by their desire to teach Michael the concept of making something for others' enjoyment.

A growing enterprise

With the help of a local culinary school, Drs. Liberatore and Kessaris developed a 10-step recipe for homemade, organic granola. Before long, they had their first buyer: Manhattan-based fresh&co, which sells 2-ounce bags in its 17 locations. Luv Michael developed one recipe, gluten- and nut-free Originola Granola, because food allergies and gluten sensitivity affect many on the autism spectrum.

As the business grew, Luv Michael moved from the family kitchen to a commercial kitchen at Entrepreneur Space in Long Island City. The team has grown to include a culinary educator, kitchen manager, special educator and two mentors/teaching assistants who recently graduated from Nassau Community College. Three employable adults with autism, including Michael, participate. The team produces 120 pounds of granola each week for fresh&co, plus 13 Queens Starbucks locations and six Wild By Nature stores. Luv Michael students can also earn a New York State food handler’s license.

Education differentiates Luv Michael from other vocational programs, Dr. Liberatore said. She added: “Our students learn not only how to make granola but also how to interact with customers and work on their communication, data entry and financial skills.”

As Luv Michael expands, the Drs. Liberatore and Kessaris plan to open a permanent kitchen in Manhasset, where they hope to offer a intensive, full-time curriculum for up to eight students, and an accelerated program of late-afternoon classes.

The organization records all its lessons so it can create a reproducible curriculum that Michael's family can offer to other communities.

“My vision is to create a replicable model, so parents don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Dr. Liberatore said. “We’ve been approached by parents in the boroughs, as well as by groups from California, Connecticut and New Jersey. By giving families who are dealing with the same challenges an opportunity to open a local Luv Michael chapter, we can help provide meaningful employment for all adults with special needs.”

The granola made at Luv Michael is available in four states.

Featured in the following publications:

Doctoring 2017