Tahoe Park mom gives people on autism spectrum a place to belong
By Jessica Laskey
For many parents, a child finishing school is an accomplishment. For Tahoe Park native Vanessa Bieker, seeing her son John Almeda aging out of the school system was nerve-wracking.
Almeda has non-verbal autism, which Bieker explains “means he lacked social, emotional and life skills and job training when he graduated in 2015.” Though Bieker did all she could to secure her son a job, many businesses didn’t want to assume liability for a non-verbal employee. So Bieker took matters into her own hands.
“I thought, John can’t be the only one out there going through this,” Bieker says. “There have to be other families facing this too.” In 2016, Bieker left her job at UC Davis to found the Fly Brave Foundation, a nonprofit that hosts events and provides free services and training in social skills, fitness, public speaking, art, theater and employment skills for individuals on the autism spectrum.
In the early days, the five participating Fly Brave families met in Bieker’s living room and made bracelets to sell and help fund the group’s activities. They started a running club—Almeda loves running and completed the Boston Marathon in 2019—and helped clients get landscaping jobs.
Their first event was what Bieker calls an “autism prom.” Her son and his friends never attended a prom, so Fly Brave made it happen. It was a huge hit. Over the last four years, the nonprofit has grown to 400 families.
Fly Brave established community-based employment training programs in landscaping, retail (through an online retail store and pop-up markets), public speaking and social skills workshops. The group organizes numerous events including proms, karaoke nights, fashion shows, talent shows and art shows. There’s a fitness program that includes running, yoga, fitness in the park and Sky High Sports meet-ups, plus a Fly Fit program that pairs police officers with people on the autism spectrum to learn about one another and build community bonds through fitness.
To celebrate its growth, Fly Brave rented vacant space at 59th Street and Broadway. The site provides a home base and retail space for products made in the art and design program, including popular slogan T-shirts.
Bieker and six other moms renovated the space and opened the store this summer. The Fly Brave Emporium sells gently used clothes, housewares and furniture, plus new items, such as soaps, candles, accessories and art, from artists across the U.S. The adjacent coffee shop is now the Anime Café with a coffee cart run by Fly Brave clients as they learn about customer service. After hours, the shop serves as a gathering place for classes, meet-ups and events.
“It’s taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get where we are,” Bieker says. “Fly Brave’s goals are to give you hope that anything is possible, to give you a life of purpose and make you feel like you belong. We went from having no one to having a village.”
For more information, visit flybrave.org.
Jessica Laskey can be reached at email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.