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The Puzzling Piece “Acceptance from a different Angle” necklace.**
Melissa Winter is a vibrant, positive force of nature when it comes to her family and her autism advocacy. Her oldest son, Max, is autistic and she and her husband do whatever it takes to make sure he has what he needs to flourish—even if that included uprooting and moving from New Jersey to South Florida.
“It means more time in the sun, on playgrounds and in the pool. And the more time that I could see Max smiling. It’s what I live for.”
With Max happy and blossoming, she turned her focus on ways that she could support the organizations that were making such a positive impact on her family’s lives.
I designed a hand blown glass puzzle piece necklace, had it packaged in a small blue gift bag and used it as a fundraiser for the terrific school Max was attending. Everyone got involved—the teachers, parents and board members—and we sold out!
The Puzzling Piece was born and today she designs and carries a stylish line of jewelry and accessories that raise autism awareness, provide funds for nonprofit autism organizations, and honors autism children and their families.
Have I peaked your curiosity about this amazing woman? Read on to find out more…
Melissa, you started with one piece of jewelry to benefit one school. Tell us how The Puzzling Piece has grown.
The Puzzling Piece touches new people every day. When people take the iPad challenge they need to sell 60 qualifying items to receive their new iPad. So many of my challengers wear my products and talk about them to everyone they know. This has been a big part of how we have grown because more people find out about us every day. We are creating autism awareness everywhere. Social Media has been a big part of our growth also. Every day I get emails from new people who want to take our challenge and I have given away hundreds of iPads.
How big is your product line and how many organizations benefit from their proceeds?
I have personally designed all of the products that we sell. Each new piece comes with a warm thought behind it. When you go to my web page and find a piece you love, you can also read what it stands for. My hope is you will love the item even more when you understand the meaning behind it. Every time a challenger wins an iPad we make a donation to an Autism based 501c3. Many of our challengers ask us to send the donation to a group that has touched them, but if they don’t, I send the funds to one of the groups on my web page that we support.
The designs of many of your pieces have a deep personal connection. Can you share one piece and the inspiration behind its design?
I think I will share the story of my first piece! I went to an Autism Speaks walk for the first time ever and I felt I was ready to become part of the autism world. I had pulled myself out of denial, so at this walk I wanted to buy something that could show my autism support. I looked at all the booths and nothing really touched me.
That night I sat outside and looked up at the sky and thought ‘is my son ever going to talk?’ As I looked at the stars my first piece came to mind and I came up with the hand-blown glass puzzle piece. I created the colors to remind me of the dark sky with all the hope I could see in the stars. I thought I am making this piece for me as well as all the other people who want to show support.
I created it to hang on an angle because I was working on “hanging on” myself…to the stars of hope! I felt like it was wearing a puzzle of hope.
Your tag line is “It’s not just art, it’s a statement.” What’s that statement from your perspective and what is it that you want the world to know about autism?
Yes, all the pieces I sell are my works of art, but they also have another meaning. It’s a statement to me that so many people are touched by autism, and it’s important to me that we all understand what is going on. Autism is a part of my son, but not all of who he is. It makes some things really hard for him and other things really easy. I just want the world to know that in Max’s case it’s not that he does not want to be included, but that he is not good at including himself. If you know someone with autism, try to remember they want the same things you do and sometimes it’s just hard for them to show it.
What is the iPad challenge and who does it help?
The iPad challenge is a way for you to earn an iPad, create autism awareness, and help out an Autism based 501c3 of your choice. I created this challenge to help anyone with a disability get an iPad. It’s a way for friends and families to help show their support and for us to share our story.
What would you like to tell parents who have just received an autism diagnosis for their child?
First off, I need to say you still have the same child you had yesterday. Yes, you have new information and a new journey to take together, but this is not the end of the world. It’s just the beginning of a new one. I do understand this was not part of your “plan” for your child as it wasn’t part of my plan either, but this is where you are now. The more love and support you give to any child the more they will grow. You need to trust your own instincts and do what feels right for you and your family. Just as you thought you would teach your child about life, you can now learn about life from a different perspective; through your child’s eyes. Max is an awesome inspiration to us. We celebrate every accomplishment, big or small, and work towards the next one together as a family.
You turned your energy and creativity into positive autism advocacy. What advice can you give to someone who would like to start their own form of autism advocacy? How do they begin?
I would say The Puzzling Piece has helped me on a personal level. I feel it’s been a place for me to share my story and help others in the process. It feels good to make a difference in someone’s life just because you care. I would say start where you are and go with what feels right to you.
How is your son, Max, doing these days?
Max is 10 years old now and he is in the 3rd grade and has a paraprofessional with him. Social skills are still hard for him. Reading has been an uphill road for us. I can tell you that Max is a happy kid. He tries harder than his classmates and he understands why. Max knows that he has autism and he is in a good place with it. He loves his iPad and his Legos and he will tell you that Sam, his little brother, is his best friend.
What’s next on the horizon for you and The Puzzling Piece?
I am not sure what is next on the horizon for The Puzzling Piece, but I can tell you I am open to new ideas and I will continue to make a difference.
If our readers leave with only one message after reading this interview, what would you like it to be?
You may have to work harder than someone else, but remember to be grateful for all that you do have.
Find Melissa and The Puzzling Piece on:
Images courtesy of The Puzzling Piece
ENTER TO WIN one of Melissa’s beautiful designs: “Acceptance From A Different Angle”
When we accept someone for who they are we celebrate the success, and reflect on the good. Accepting someone for who they really are can only be done when you open up your heart, and sometimes look at things from a different angle!