For such a young man, Spencer Kelly is certainly accomplishing a lot in life.
Last year, the Oxford Virtual Academy/homeschooled student unleashed his entrepreneurial spirit and founded his own business.
This year, Spencer, an Orion Township resident, will be a panelist and exhibitor at the US Autism & Asperger Association’s (USAAA) 12th Annual World Conference and Expo to be held in Portland, Oregon Aug. 24-27.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” said Spencer, who will celebrate his 16th birthday on Aug. 12. “It’s unbelievable.”
USAAA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping everyone living with autism, Asperger syndrome and other related disorders reach their fullest potential through education, training, resources and partnerships.
“We are so excited,” said Spencer’s mother, Tracie. “It’s such a fantastic, amazing opportunity for Spencer to share his story and hopefully, inspire other kids. They, too, can put their minds to something (and) not let any kind of special needs hold them back.”
Spencer was born with Asperger’s syndrome, an autism-spectrum disorder, but he doesn’t let it stop him from achieving his goals and chasing his dreams.
In September 2016, he started a thriving handcrafted soap business called The Expedition Soap Co. as a way to pay for a new bicycle after his old one was stolen.
The bike was paid off long ago, but the business continues to grow as does Spencer’s enthusiasm and ambition.
He personally oversees every aspect of the business from designing labels and naming the soaps (there’s 65 varieties) to packaging the products and selling them at vendor shows. There’s a large workstation in the basement of his home where he and his family cut, label and wrap the soaps.
“The work really does not stop,” he said.
But running a business isn’t all about the bottom line to Spencer. He believes strongly in sharing his success by giving back and helping others.
That’s why earlier this year, Spencer wrote to Dr. L.P. Kaplan, chairman and chief executive officer of USAAA, to inform him that he’d be making a donation to the organization in honor of National Autism Awareness Month, which is celebrated in April.
Spencer ended up contributing $200, plus “a bunch of soap,” as Tracie put it.
The next thing Spencer knew, Kaplan personally reached out to him.
“He proceeded to tell us that he loved the soap – they all loved the soap – and they wanted to know more about Spencer,” Tracie said.
Following a 45-minute discussion, Kaplan invited to Spencer to not only showcase and sell his all-natural soaps at the USAAA World Conference and Expo, but participate in a panel discussion where he’ll be talking about the various challenges he’s faced and how he deals with them.
“I hope they’ll really be inspired and (see) that just because you have autism or Asperger’s syndrome doesn’t mean that the whole world forgets about you,” Spencer said. “You can make your place. You can really succeed, no matter what.”
Kaplan said he’s “heard hundreds of stories,” but Spencer’s stuck with him because it’s something “different.” He had “never heard anything like this.”
That’s why he invited him to participate in the conference.
“It’s a wonderful story,” he said. “I’m looking forward to meeting him.”
“It means a lot to me,” Spencer said. “I’m so happy that I got this opportunity.”
The panel discussion in which Spencer will be participating is “probably the most informational” for people on the autism spectrum, according to Kaplan, because it directly addresses the “major challenges” they face throughout their lives and helps them “better understand” them.
“It can be inspirational, but for the most part, it’s (about) the reality of what they go through,” he said.
Tracie views Spencer’s invitation to the USAAA conference as another sign that everything’s coming “together in his life” after “so many years of trials and hard work.”
“It just feels so good,” she said. “It’s heartwarming and exciting.”
When he’s not busy building his soap empire, Spencer is concentrating on his studies. Not only will he begin his junior year of high school this fall, he’ll also be dual enrolled at Oakland University.
“I really am excited about starting college classes,” he said. “I hope that it will provide the challenge that I need.”