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Opening of Popcorn for the People production facility will provide endless opportunities for the neurodiverse community 

Cutting the ribbon at the new Popcorn for the People production facility.
Cutting the ribbon at the new Popcorn for the People production facility.

"Together, we are limitless."

A phrase that means so much to the neurodiverse community is now printed on a mural along the side of the new Popcorn for the People production facility that features an Eagles Autism Foundation and Wawa-themed wing design.

"We hope when individuals walk by the mural that they get a little inspiration in their busy day," said Chris Gheysens, Wawa's Chief Executive Officer. "They see that, maybe pause, and think about how they can provide the wings for other people to soar."

On Wednesday, Popcorn for the People celebrated the grand opening of its new factory on the corner of 9th and South Street with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The facility, covered in Eagles Autism Foundation and Wawa branding, is at the site of a former Wawa store in the heart of Philadelphia's Headhouse District.

"To be able to bring this opportunity to our community, working with the Eagles Autism Foundation, is really something special," Philadelphia District 1 Councilman Mark Squilla said. "What this has done is given us a chance to grow, but also a model for others."

Established in 2014, Popcorn for the People was founded to create career opportunities for the disabled community, specifically those who have autism. Dr. Steve Bier created the nonprofit business with the goal of giving an employment opportunity to his son Sam, who is on the spectrum.

Popcorn for the People started with a small store in the Freehold Mall in New Jersey in 2014 before moving to another location in the East Brunswick Mall.

The popcorn first appeared at concession stands around Lincoln Financial Field in December of 2019 after Eagles Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Frank Gumienny discovered the nonprofit at a Rutgers University football game and brought the idea back to Ryan Hammond, the Executive Director of the Eagles Autism Foundation. In August 2023, a permanent Popcorn for the People shop was opened in Pepsi Plaza.

"This is a very positive moment," Dr. Bier said. "We are surrounded by winners, and we are so proud."

Dr. Steve and Sam Bier, co-founders of Popcorn for the People.

As part of the new initiative:

  • Popcorn for the People will hire and train a dedicated staff of 25 employees at the new facility within the first 6-12 months of operation.
  • Wawa will provide support through its repurposed store, which will exceed $1.5 million over the next five years.
  • A newly branded Popcorn for the People community vehicle will travel around the region delivering product to events, creating even more employment opportunities for individuals.
  • $1 from every bag sold goes towards the Eagles Autism Foundation to help fund future community grants.

While the facility won't be open to the public, it will include state-of-the-art popcorn-making equipment like Poppers, Caramelizers, and Tumblers to help increase production.

"We want enough equipment to make it easier for our workers, but not equipment that would replace our workers," Dr. Bier said.

Along with Popcorn for the People, this community-driven project would not have been possible without the Eagles Autism Foundation, Wawa, and Nouryon. It was a long journey for each organization to reach the goal of opening the popcorn production factory.

The Eagles Autism Foundation partnered with Wawa a year ago to bring this project to life. Hammond pitched the idea of turning the vacant store into a popcorn production factory to Wawa executives at an Eagles Autism Challenge event.

"We all came into this, not about this transactional relationship, but really about how we can transform lives together," Hammond said.

The Eagles Autism Foundation team!

Hammond and David Simonetti, Wawa's Senior Director of Store Operations, spearheaded the charge of this dream and vision.

Simonetti, who has a daughter with Down Syndrome and is a major supporter of Wawa's Supported Employment Program for people with intellectual disabilities, oversaw the former store that is now the Popcorn for the People factory.

"I am so blown away and proud about the amount of interest and excitement this project has generated," Simonetti said. "This is our call to action that we need more people to get involved in this space."

With a plan in place between the Eagles Autism Foundation and Wawa, the last piece of the puzzle was funding. That is where Nouryon, a chemical manufacturing company, came into play.

Along with investments from Nouryon, a long-standing partner of the Eagles, and money raised by the Eagles Autism Challenge community, there was a clear path to Wednesday's grand opening.

"We knew that partnering with Wawa, the Eagles, and Popcorn for the People would help us understand why the neurodiverse community is underemployed," said Regina Tracy, Global Director of Corporate Communications and Events for Nouryon. "What we wanted to do when we said yes to Ryan was to bring jobs to not only the Philadelphia area but beyond."

That is exactly what these organizations have done in a truly remarkable partnership – provide jobs to the neurodiverse community.

The population of individuals with intellectual disabilities has a 85 percent unemployment rate. While the Eagles Autism Foundation, Wawa, Popcorn for the People, and Nouryon can only do so much, the goal for this initiative is to significantly lower that number.

The Eagles Autism Foundation, Nouryon, Popcorn for the People, and Wawa opened doors to the first Popcorn for the People production facility on Wednesday, supporting neurodiverse employment.

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