Stay-Home Order Creates Uncertainty for Non-Profit Retreat Hotel that Employs People with Autism

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At Erik’s Retreat off Highway 62 and Xerxes in Edina, MN, several people on the autism spectrum have found their calling running the non-profit hotel, providing accommodations and meals, and leading segway tours and other excursions. Their patrons come from miles around to explore the nearby beaches and trails of Lake Harriet, the Mall of America, the Sea Life Aquarium, and other attractions of the Twin Cities.

But due to the stay-at-home orders across the U.S. and the world, clients at the hotel have been few and far between during the COVID-19 pandemic. The staffers at Erik’s Retreat don’t know what the future of the hotel will be when people are finally able to visit their establishment again.

And as you might imagine, this makes a much bigger impact on staff members with autism than it might on neurotypical staffers. People on the autism spectrum often have a difficult time forming relationships and making good first impressions in job interviews. Society is simply not always structured to allow them to succeed, making the success of this business very important. Erik’s Retreat gives people with ASD a chance to flourish, to earn their own money, and to be more independent. Plus, it’s also where they live, so if the business goes under, they’ll have to find new jobs and new residences.

Erik’s Retreat employs 14 young people on the spectrum and was started by Kathryn Nordberg, whose son, Erik, has trouble holding conversations with people but can talk all day about something he’s knowledgable about.

“He’s not terribly verbal,” she says. “He’s not conversationally verbal, I should say, but I thought, ‘Oh, if he could lead those tours and take people on those outings, that would be a really great life for him.'”

Business had been going well for the retreat, to the point where Kathryn had just hired a construction crew to double the number of available guest rooms to 17, when the novel coronavirus began impacting her clients’ travel plans.

“We’ve had no guests now whatsoever,” Kathryn says.

Not only has the lack of guests dried up sources of revenue for the business, it’s also led to a lack of social opportunities for the young people who live at and run the hotel.

“Our members, of course, have to stay in their apartments,” Kathryn added. “We are getting them out one at a time to go out to the lakes.”

Between donations, a Paycheck Protection Program loan, and income from a sister hotel in Montana, Erik’s Retreat is staying afloat for now. But it won’t last into the autumn. What will happen in the future remains to be seen.

In the meantime, Kathryn and her team have been working hard to make the hotel a safe place for guests to come when they’re finally able to travel there again. They’ve implemented new cleaning protocols, started leaving rooms vacant for 24 hours between guests, and set up a self-check-in station. Bike tours and segway tours can still be given from a proper six-foot distance.

“When you come stay with us, it’s not just a hotel room,” Kathryn added. “You are helping a young person with their life.”

Check out the video below to learn more about how this amazing business has helped people on the autism spectrum gain social skills and independence. Perhaps this will be the place to book your next vacation when stay-home orders are lifted.

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Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?
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