Panera Bread Kicks Off Fundraiser for Rich Center

CANFIELD, Ohio – Even something as fleeting as a simple “goodbye” is cause for celebration when a child afflicted with autism says it, Becky Henry says.

Henry, of Austintown, is the mother of Lucas Henry, age 9 and a student at the Rich Center for Autism at Youngstown State University.

“Every little milestone is celebrated,” she said Monday. “I remember the day he actually said, ‘Bye, Mom,’ when I was dropping him off. I wasn’t the only one to hear it and celebrate it. His teachers celebrated it and the director of the center celebrated.”

Henry was at the Panera Bread Bakery-Café here with another son, Liam, age 5, to participate in the kickoff of the annual Pieces of Hope cookie sale. Proceeds from the cookie sale raise funds for the Rich Center, says Ashlee Mauti, director of marketing for Covelli Enterprises in Warren.

Liam Henry, who does not have autism like his brother but attends the Rich Center for speech and occupational therapy, decorated several of the special shortbread “puzzle” cookies made especially for the fundraiser.

In addition to the cookie sale, donations will be collected at cash boxes at the registers of Panera cafes in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys.

Covelli Enterprises operates Panera restaurants in the valleys. This year is the fifth for the fundraiser, which runs through April 19.

“We’re so fortunate, so grateful and so pleased to be recognized by Covelli Enterprises again,” said Bergen Giordani, associate director of development at the Rich Center. “We love that the community recognizes that the Rich Center is here and we’re doing good work.”

Since the first year, the event has raised more than $60,000 for the Rich Center, Mauti reported.

“We like to get involved in things that our customers care about. So in all of the communities that we do business, we try to give back in a way that our customers feel good about. Certainly autism awareness is one of those special causes,” she said.

“Our shortbread cookie is already delicious so the blue puzzle [design] really adds a special element to it and the customers really rally behind it,” she noted.

Funds support operating expenses at the center, Giordani said. The center, serves children ages two through 18 at the main unit on the YSU campus as well as two satellites.

The center has 45 teachers on staff to serve its 72 students. “Our students really need individualized attention and we’re able to provide that,” she said.

“Autism can be isolating,” Henry said. So families take comfort in knowing “that you’re not alone and on your worst day you can talk to somebody who has maybe been there and understands exactly where you’re coming from.”

Pictured: Ashlee Mauti, director of marketing for Covelli Enterprises, and Bergen Giordani, associate director of development at the Rich Center.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.