Loyola Magazine

A car wash with a purpose

Family-owned car wash employs and empowers adults with autism

As an undergraduate, Kevin Wolyniec, ’11, knew his interest in Baltimore nightlife was the foundation of a solid career.

The New York native tended bar at a local Baltimore pub and founded Rally in the Alley, an outdoor music festival at Ram’s Head Live in downtown Baltimore that draws a large college crowd near the start of the fall semester. Three years later, he was managing 12 bars in eight different cities.

But it’s Wolyniec’s most recent professional endeavor that has reunited him with his Jesuit values. He left the food service industry to wash cars—and spread the word about autism in the process.

Wolyniec is now the general manager at Rising Tide Car Wash in Parkland, Fla., a business that employs adults with autism and helps them reach their full potential.

Wolyniec’s best friend, Thomas D’Eri, started the car wash with his father, John D’Eri. Tom’s brother, Andrew, is autistic. Andrew’s autism was his family’s inspiration for starting the business. When Wolyniec received a call from the lifelong friend asking if he’d be interested in learning about car washes, he took the chance and invested in the project.

Rising Tide currently employs 35 adults with autism, making up 80 percent of the staff. Many of those employees have never had a job before. Now they have the chance to make $10-$12 an hour—plus tips.

In addition, the work helps build their skill set and create a sense of self-identity, Wolyniec said.

“This is a family for them. Some of them come to work even on their days off to hang out.”

In the details

Autistic adults are very detailed and process oriented, so Wolyniec and his team have broken down the car wash routine into 46 individual steps, from greeting the customer to vacuuming the interior of the car.

With the car wash averaging more than 10,000 cars a month, the routine is necessary to keep the business running smoothly.

Wolyniec trains the employees initially. After the first training, he selects a few employees to train his or her peers, an opportunity not available to many adults with autism. Obtaining a leadership role boosts employees’ confidence and gives them the chance to delegate and lead a team.

And don’t be surprised if you see Wolyniec grabbing a sponge to help out his team. “I work beside my guys all day,” he said.

His employees are the most loyal and dedicated workforce he’s ever worked with, never complaining or slacking on the job.

For many of the autistic adults at Rising Tide, this is the first time they are earning their own wages. Now, they are able to buy their own soda or lunch—a simple pleasure Wolyniec used to take for granted.

It’s common for adults with autism to be non-verbal. Speech therapy is often very costly. The company provided therapy for a few of the non-verbal employees, and gave them radios to let them hear their own voices.

“Now they won’t shut up,” Wolyniec laughed. And even in the humidity of Florida summer, they never stop smiling.

The autism epidemic

Prior to becoming the general manager of Rising Tide Car Wash, Wolyniec didn’t know anything about autism. Now he wants to be a part of the movement to help raise awareness about the disorder.

Approximately 1 in 68 children in the United States are born with autism, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Once children age out of the school system, there are practically no job opportunities, even though a majority of these adults are fully capable of work.

“We’re not the only ones thinking about it,” Wolyniec said about raising awareness. “We’re just doing something about it. We’re a car wash with a message.”

With no direct cause or cure, and plenty of speculation, educating the public about the disorder is key. The car wash has been featured in national media, and appears in the Autism Speaks documentary, Sounding the Alarm: Battling the Autism Epidemic.

And the message is spreading. The company has been contacted by people from all over the world —including Colorado, Montana, and the Philippines —interested in helping the movement and encouraging more businesses to hire adults with autism.

One of Rising Tide’s expansion plans is a staffing model, in which the company would go to other car washes and work with the community to hire between 35-50 autistic adults, a replication of the flagship location in Florida. The ultimate goal would be to franchise.

However, Wolyniec said that’s far into the future. For now, the company plans to open three or five locations in the next two to five years. The entire process for each location will take nine months to a year to complete, Wolyniec said.

Becoming a mentor

During his time at the car wash, Wolyniec has reflected on his Loyola days and the mentor who helped shape him, Rev. Jack Dennis, S.J., former director of Campus Ministry.

“He was the greatest mentor,” Wolyniec said. “I had so much respect for him.”

Fr. Dennis helped students struggling in and out of classroom, taking the time to know students as individuals. “He was a man among men,” Wolyniec said.

Today Wolyniec is channeling that mentorship at the car wash for his employees.

“I get to be a big brother. A mentor. It’s incredible watching these guys grow and develop,” he said. “It’s a really humbling experience.”