An Employee of Rising Tide Car Wash

Thomas Shomaker

Meet the Gutsy Dad That Started a Car Wash to Help His Son Find Purpose

Individuals with autism are an advantage for this Florida business.

Most car washes are filled with less-than-enthusiastic workers. But in Parkland, Fla., there’s a place to clean your car where the employees — 80 percent of which are along the autism spectrum — are extremely excited about their daily responsibilities, making the turnover rate almost non-existent.

Started by the father-and-son team of John and Tom D’Eri, Rising Tide Car Wash gives their son and brother, Andrew, who was identified as an autistic individual at the age of three, and its other employees the chance to lead a fulfilling life.

Before the car wash opened, John was a successful entrepreneur, while Tom, a recent college grad, worked as a consultant. At the time, they lived in the greater New York City area, as did Andrew (who resided with his mother, Donna D’Eri). Andrew was approaching the age of 22, a milestone known in the autism community as “falling off the cliff,” a term derived from the fact that virtually all government support expires when an individual with autism reaches what is typically college-graduate age. Faced with extremely limited employment opportunities, many of these individuals stay at home and begin to regress because they have little in the way of meaningful activities.

The D’Eri family decided that wasn’t going to happen to Andrew. John and Tom formed CanDo Business Ventures in 2011, a nonprofit focused on finding scalable businesses that could employ people with autism. After much research, they identified the car wash industry as a good match for those with autism since they’re more likely to be engaged by detailed, repetitive processes than those not on the spectrum. A car wash also has the advantage of being open to the public, allowing patrons to witness the value of workers on the spectrum.

“It’s a really tangible service,” says Tom. “So, you leave a car wash and you understand if it’s clean, or if it’s not. You’re gonna see, ‘oh wow, these guys did a great job, oh hey, all these guys have autism.’”

In 2012, the entire family moved from New York to the greater Miami area to take over a struggling car wash, and on April 1, 2013, Rising Tide Car Wash opened for business. It’s a for-profit company, financed by the personal assets amassed by John’s earlier business ventures; no federal or state grants or subsidies have been received. Employees are found through community partners, such as the Broward County School District and the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities.

Although altruistic in their mission, the D’Eri family prefers to describe individuals on the spectrum as an untapped resource versus people with a disability. John describes Rising Tide as a “booming success” and speaks of plans to expand to additional locations in the coming years. Currently, Rising Tide employs 35 individuals on the spectrum. With the goal of three locations by 2016, John believes that the company will eventually employ more than 150 individuals with autism.

Andrew and the other employees on the spectrum have grown in confidence and their desire to be social has increased. Plus, they’re now part of a larger community of support.

“We see what Andrew’s life is going to be,” says Tom. “We see that he’s going to have a community that’s going to take care of him. And that takes a whole load of stress off the family.”