PHILADELPHIA — As the football world turns its focus toward next season, some of the Eagles’ most important work off the field was being celebrated in Center City.

The Eagles Autism Foundation helped transform a former Wawa location at Ninth and South Streets into a popcorn facility in an effort to combat the high unemployment rates among people with autism or developmental disabilities.

The Eagles collaborated with Wawa, the nonprofit Popcorn for the People, and chemicals leader Nouryon to establish the new facility, which will provide employment opportunities for members of the neurodiverse community to cook, prepare and package popcorn. The popcorn will then be sold at Lincoln Financial Field and in Wawa stores, with one dollar from every bag sold going towards the Eagles Autism Foundation.

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“It is really the vision of our chairman and CEO, Jeffrey Lurie,” said Ryan Hammond, the executive director of the Eagles Autism Foundation. “He set out in 2018 to raise millions of dollars to support autism research and care and to create a more inclusive world, to meet families where they are, and to ultimately change lives. And I think it really starts with him, his vision, and how he’s been able to create it.”

Lurie previously spearheaded the opening of a popcorn concession stand at Lincoln Financial Field that employs adults with autism and intellectual disabilities. The stand, also a partnership with Popcorn for the People, opened last season. Hammond said Eagles now have more than 20 neurodiverse adults working at every event at Lincoln Financial Field.

“The reality is we can address one of the greatest challenges in this community. And it’s employment,” Hammond said. “And we can not only change the lives of individuals who are earning their first paycheck, but we can change their family and their future.”

The idea for a dedicated facility originated with Hammond almost a year ago, and with Wawa looking for a new purpose for the Center City store, the partnership formed. The interior of the old store has been revamped, and has brand-new popcorn production equipment designed with accessibility in mind. The facility plans to hire and train a team of 25 employees over the next six to 12 months.

The facility also unveiled a community mural of a pair of wings on the exterior of the building, titled Together We Are Limitless.

At a recent ceremony, Eagles mascot Swoop and Wawa mascot Wally Goose were on hand to cut the ceremonial ribbon. Kylie Kelce, wife of Eagles center Jason Kelce whose signed Eagles letterman jacket was auctioned for $100,000 in support of the Eagles’ Autism Foundation in November, was in the crowd.

“It’s a city of inclusion. It’s a place where people with disabilities can lead healthy and fulfilling lives and be respected members of a really inclusive society,” Wawa CEO Chris Gheysens said. “We hope what this store, this partnership with Popcorn for the People does, aids in that just a little bit more.”

© 2024 The Philadelphia Inquirer
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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