Alex is seen on April 1. opening day of the ice cream shop in Erdenheim, with his sons, Spencer (left), who has autism, and Xander.

by Leslie Feldman

Who doesn’t love an ice cream cone? And when you can purchase one and enjoy every mouthful knowing you are supporting children with autism, there’s no better feeling.

Nightlight Ice Cream, the former Esposito’s Water Ice at 1020 Bethlehem Pike in Erdenheim, operated a by local organization, Nightlight Foundation, just opened for the season on April 1 in time for Autism Awareness Month. They will be partnering with the Nexus School in Roslyn, which educates children within the autism spectrum. Students from Nexus will help make water ice and perform other tasks for the ice cream shop this season.

Opening an ice cream shop was the creative idea of Dave Masterson and Damien Park, friends of Nightlight Foundation’s founder Alex Viele, of Erdenheim, whose son Spencer, 17, has autism. “It took some convincing for me to agree with the idea of running an ice cream shop,” said Viele. “We all have busy lives, careers and families. Where would we find time to run a shop seven days a week for more than half of the year? In the end, all three of us felt the ice cream business would be too good an opportunity to pass up.”

Viele believes it is a great way to tell the foundation’s story and a vehicle to raise money and provide employment opportunities for people with autism. With the help of friends, family members (mostly volunteers), students, Nick Panera (the former owner) and Masterson doing much of the heavy lifting by managing the store, they were able to take over the operation last year.

Viele’s son Spencer, who attends the Nexus School, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age 3 after Viele and his wife Louisa Lee found that he had not reached many of his developmental milestones. After years of therapy and special education, it was clear that Spencer was going to be dependent on some level of support for the rest of his life. The family, which includes son Xander, 15, had to face the harsh reality that they won’t always be there to support Spencer.

“The unfortunate truth is that millions of other families face the same challenges,” explained Viele, a sales director for TiVo DVR recorders. “Ever since the 1990s, there has been a tidal wave of autism diagnoses. Louisa and I knew that we and many other families in our community would have a difficult time providing the support Spencer and people like him need financially and physically.

“It’s common for one parent to give up a job/career to care for their affected son or daughter, as was the case with us. Louisa has a master’s degree in early childhood education. She was a kindergarten teacher and planned to go back to work once our kids reached pre-school age. That changed when Spencer was diagnosed before his third birthday. The house was a revolving door of therapists who worked with Spencer in the years prior to attending school. The financial challenges start there.”

The cost of autism over a lifespan is about $2.4 million for a person in the U.S. with an intellectual disability, largely driven by the costs of residential care, special education and reduced employment prospects, according to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics.

Understanding the Vieles’ need, Masterson and Park began the Nightlight Foundation at the end of 2014. The original mission was to raise money to provide some relief to adults affected with autism. They learned that the funding available from the federal and state level of government is not enough. Also, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of June, 2014, only 19.3 percent of people with disabilities in the U.S. were participating in the labor force. In the spring of 2016, Nightlight received non-profit 501(c)3 status.

The Viele Family has local roots. Alex was born in Connecticut, but Louisa Lee grew up in Chestnut Hill. They met and got engaged in Boston and were married in Wyndmoor. They originally lived in Mt. Airy but moved to Erdenheim 20 years ago. “One of the reasons we chose Springfield Township was its proximity to Chestnut Hill,” said Viele.

The family enjoys walks and hikes in Wissahickon/Valley Green and at the Morris Arboretum. With April being Autism Awareness month, the Nightlight board’s fundraising committee planned their first annual Nightlight fundraiser at MaGerks in Ft. Washington on Friday, April 21, 7-10 p.m.

“People like our son Spencer are happy and fulfilled when they have something that they enjoy doing, just like anybody else,” said Alex. Opportunities and support for someone like Spencer drop off dramatically when he reaches the age of 21 … To build and sustain just one home for a handful of people with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) will cost an enormous amount of money. But we know we can do it.”

Viele hopes to eventually purchase more Nightlight Ice Cream locations in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. For more information about the fundraiser, visit www.nightlightfoundation.com. For store information, call 610-592-8950 or visit nightlighticecream.com

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