Cash, Check Or Charge? Give Day Tampa Bay Goes Online To Get You To Donate

Vicky Westra runs the kind of nonprofit organization that Give Day Tampa Bay is designed to get you to support.

Westra of Tampa wanted more employment options for her 17-year-old daughter, who was diagnosed with a form of autism. She started looking around and quickly realized that few employers were prepared to offer jobs that fit the special abilities of people with disabilities.

Undeterred, she started thinking like an entrepreneur. Observe a problem. Create a solution. Soon, she came up with her own idea: Create an ideal work environment for autistic adults to work in various roles of the food and hospitality business as well as the arts. 

The result? 

Artistas Cafe (Art for Autism). 

The first cafe, featuring beverages brewed and served by autistic adults, opened at Mercedes Benz of Tampa almost four years ago; a second has been operating for about a year at Jabil Circuit in St. Petersburg.

Westra has developed a unique training program that determines worker interest and pairs their abilities to an appropriate job. She has worked with 25 autistic adults through the program. Employees who have social or communication issues work behind the scenes packing or shipping items they sell. Other autistic employees work for the nonprofit writing grants and working in IT.

"They've not only been able to gain employment but retain employment,'' Westra says.

And now she has dreams of expansion.

That is part of why Westra's group signed up to be part of Give Day Tampa Bay. Hers is just one of 384 Tampa Bay area nonprofit groups participating in the region's first dedicated day of giving on May 6 to raise awareness and support for local charities.

Give A Little, Get A Lot

The idea of Give Day is to make philanthropy more accessible to people. Think iTunes for giving. Just search the list of nonprofit groups, make a few clicks, decide how much to donate and then do it. You're done -- for now.

"This is really just the path to get them into the organization,'' says Jocelyn Carpenter, director of Give Day Tampa Bay.

Donations to nonprofits typically slack off in the springtime following the busy holiday season. Give Day provides an opportunity for nonprofits to engage new donors and grow their donor bases over the months leading up to the next holiday season, Carpenter says.

Give Day planners are targeting millennials, many of whom volunteer their time but may not realize the importance of small donations having a big cumulative effect to make a difference, Carpenter says. Donations will be compiled in real time on a leaderboard on the Give Day Tampa Bay website, Carpenter says.

After the 24 hours of giving, the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay plans to broaden its efforts to use an online giving platform to connect potential donors with local nonprofits.

This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the Community Foundation. Community Foundations across the country are doing similar fundraising drives.

"We're hoping this is something that will take off,'' Carpenter says. "And we will do it next year and hope that it will get bigger and bigger.''

Growing Artistas Cafe Into The Future

What's next for Artistas Cafe? Westra can already see it: The Artistas Academy. A place with enough space for training and assessment centers in culinary, music and arts programs.

"Not only will we be able to employ them but we're in talks with strategic partners to hire graduates,'' Westra says.

Through a partnership with USFSP, Westra is also getting validation that the results of her work already are working.

"The way that we are going to change the paradigm with autism is to show them succeeding, in a multitude of roles succeeding,'' Westra says. "We feel like we have enough validated data that we can replicate this model.''

And with enough support on Give Day and after, expansion could become a reality.

Jared Leone is a freelance writer living in Clearwater. He writes about all things Tampa Bay. Follow him @jared_leone on Twitter. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Jared Leone.

Jared Leone is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.