Stephanie Lay turned a home recipe into much-needed support for families impacted by autism
Stephanie Lay is serious about her salsa. The Windham resident grew up in Texas, where salsa is serious business, and where she developed her own recipe with a distinctly different flavor. “We grill everything,” she says.
That personal recipe can now be found on Hannaford store shelves from Gorham to Scarborough under the label Maine-Tex Grilled Salsa, and it has developed a devoted following since Lay started selling it to the public in 2014. Doug Mercier, store manager at the Hannaford in Gray, is a devotee and early supporter. “Believe me…this is very different, it’s fantastic,” he says. Mercier is such a fan, he became her first commercial customer. “She had me at salsa,” Mercier jokes, “but I’m in it for the whole story.”
That “whole story” is deep and often painful. Lay’s upcoming book, “Routine Interrupted: Autism, Cancer, Hospitals and Other Adventures,” explores the many losses and challenges Lay has faced in her 48 years. But the center of the book—and her life—is her 17-year-old son, Bryce. Diagnosed with autism at the age of 2, mothering Bryce as a single mom has often been a struggle. It is also the most wonderful thing Lay has ever done.
Autism has received increased attention in recent years, but the diagnosis, covering a wide range of behaviors, is still not well understood. For Bryce, it means an encyclopedic memory for dates and facts, as well as infectious charm. But changes in routine are extremely difficult for him and sometimes result in head banging and self-harm. Lay quickly become a fierce advocate and self-taught activist, both for her son and for anyone whose life is impacted by autism. Her advocacy has brought her into the classroom and the courtroom, and in 2014, she testified on the house floor to override the veto of LD 347, an act ensuring insurance coverage for diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders. “I learned because I had to,” she says. “I’m going to make sure my son gets what he needs. He deserves a life.”
What Bryce needs often includes time in the kitchen. He loves to cook, particularly the routine of preparing the ingredients and working the grill. Over the years, Lay and Bryce have made plenty of salsa. In the beginning, it was mostly about cooking together. Lay and Bryce would prepare a batch and Lay would bring jars to friends’ parties and other social gatherings. Then, in late 2014, something shifted. Tomatoes were on sale, Lay recalls, so she decided it was good time for another batch of salsa. Bryce got busy grilling the tomatoes, and Lay snapped a photo of her master griller at work. She posted the photo to her Facebook page, and a friend posted a comment, wanting to buy a jar of the salsa. Then another friend posted. Then another. Two weeks later, Lay had 109 orders and was deep in the process of patents, inspections and creating an LLC. Maine-Tex Grilled Salsa was born. But the salsa is really just the beginning.
Before founding Maine-Tex Grilled Salsa, Lay had some dark days. Caring for Bryce is a full-time responsibility, and paying the bills was often a struggle. Frustratingly, Lay was $7.50 over the limit to receive state assistance. Her electricity was cut off at one point, a disruption that threw Bryce into chaos. But it galvanized Lay. “I got pissed,” she says. And she got to work.
She created the Special Foundation for Autism, a nonprofit that provides education, advocacy and support to individuals and families dealing with autism. That support can come in many forms, from helping families navigate legal issues, medications, therapies and financial programs to getting batteries for sensory and communication devices. The foundation was mostly funded out of Lay’s own pocket at first, but the revenue from Maine-Tex Grilled Salsa has helped to bring the foundation into being, as a portion of all proceeds goes to support the foundation.
Today, Lay and Bryce still make all the salsa in their fully licensed Windham kitchen. They recently made 526 jars in a day and a half. Despite all that work, demand still outstrips production, and Lay has had to turn away orders. That could all change in the near future. Lay and the board of the Special Foundation for Autism have been working to establish a commercial kitchen—one that will allow them to increase output and, more importantly, be a space for a fully licensed program that will provide training and work experience for those with autism.
“This would provide structure and routine, as well as an income and a sense of self worth, to the people working there,” says Diane Russell, a Special Foundation board member and a longtime friend of Lay and Bryce. A potential site has been picked out, the foundation is working with the state to establish the program, and fundraising is underway. Donations may be made online at www.givlet.org/donate/qQWp.
Lay is understandably proud of her work. She’s created a business, started a foundation and helped bring new policy into being—all in support of people and families dealing with autism. But the greatest gift of all is the bonding that happens between her and her son in the kitchen. Once told by a doctor that her son might never show her affection, her son hugs her, tells her he loves her. Lay’s voice breaks as she says, “We’re a team. We’re a total team.”
Heather Martin lives on the coast of Maine with her honey, two sons and assorted animals. When she’s not working with various museums, art programs and nonprofits on community building, she’s usually off causing mayhem with the above mentioned crew.