Sara Mae Hickey, president and founder of The Autism Initiative, a non-profit organization committed to improving the livelihood of families and individuals affected by autism, is in the process of building and opening Puzzles Bakery & Café, located on State St. in downtown Schenectady. The bakery will employ adults with autism and other developmental disabilities.

Earlier this month, the site for the future bakery-café was broken into, vandalized, and all of their tools were stolen. There is a $2,500 insurance deductible and $1,500 is still needed to recover the organization's losses before insurance steps in to cover the rest.

Donations, tools, volunteers, and specifically individuals who have skills in construction are needed to further the cause.

As part of the “Hometown Heroes” series, we’ve partnered with County Waste, Latham Ford and Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Capital Region to celebrate local unsung heroes for their good deeds and honorable work.

We asked Sara Mae a few questions. Here’s what she had to say:

Q: What inspires you to raise autism awareness through The Autism Initiative?

A: The biggest thing for me is one in fifty individuals in the US are affected by autism. Almost everybody you talk to knows somebody who’s affected by the disability. Personally, my family is affected because my sister is on the autism spectrum. She’s very low functioning. Often when people think of autism, they think of children that have this disability but what’s so important to recognize is that this is a lifelong disorder. My sister, being 20 years old, is about to age out of the public education system. It’s a huge challenge for families in this nation because when a family member ages out of the public education system, there are not many options when it comes to housing, daytime employment opportunities, and funding keeps getting cut. I was inspired because personally I’ve been living this the past 20 years. I’m one of so many people affected by this disability. I want to come up with creative employment solutions to help people on the autism spectrum.

Q: What's the most rewarding thing about what you do?

A: That’s a tough one. We had this wonderful event this past weekend with all these therapy dogs and a ton of people who support and benefit from our organization came out. Seeing their pure joy, whether that comes in the form of a therapy dog or gainful employment, a music event, an adaptive one session, whatever it is, the ultimate reward comes from the pure joy of seeing people happy and fulfilled, feeling like they really have a place in this community.

Q: What are some challenges?

One of the biggest challenges that affect the entire autism community would be funding, understanding and awareness. Sometimes it’s hard to raise money and get people to support because there’s not really enough awareness out there, especially for the adults that have autism spectrum disorder. The biggest thing is getting the word out there about adults who are going from childhood to adulthood. The school system does a really good job of taking care of these individuals till age 21 and then it’s a free for all and you’re on your own and have you to figure out how to navigate in this adult world. Funding is really big, we’re really trying to open up the Café in the spring where we’ll employ individuals in the on the autism spectrum. Awareness is really big, just getting the understanding out there - that’s what our café is about. We are providing employee opportunities on the spectrum but we’re also putting a face on the disability. People who come in for breakfast, lunch and dinner will be able to put a face for autism and better understand the disability and what it’s all about.

Q: Do you consider yourself a "hero?" Why or why not.

A: We all need to work to make a difference in our communities. I’m just one person. I’m doing my best to make a difference. I don’t consider myself a big hero but I’m here to help the community and trying to be as selfless as possible and help these individuals who can’t always advocate for themselves. I think it’s always important for all of us to try to make a difference, no matter how big or how small and to make a positive impact on society every single day.

To donate to The Autism Initiative, click here.