Sonny Winn, left, shows Brian Ciccantelli how to shape pizza dough during a pizza social at Local Pie in Bluffton. PHOTOS BY SOPHIA TOWNES

When one goes into Local Pie, one of the restaurants on The Promenade in Old Town, it feels cozy, like a log cabin, with the wood fire brick oven and polished wood beams. The cuisine focuses on pizza, and they’re famous for their award-winning mac ’n’ cheese, but it’s not all about the food.

One thing that makes Local Pie unique goes beyond what’s on the menu. It’s how the staff has reached out to a special part of the community.

For the past nine months, Sonny Winn, Genna Scheuer, Adam Weatherford and other members of the Local Pie cook and wait staff have partnered with a group of eager pizza-makers who participate in programs with the Lowcountry Autism Foundation and Pockets Full of Sunshine, two programs for people with different abilities.

Chef Lee Lucier, owner of the restaurant, said it was his staff’s idea.

“My team came to me with it, and ran with it,” he said. “We’re just taking care of the community. Kind of ‘walk the walk.’”

That walk began when Sophia Townes, program coordinator for LAF, was talking with friends who happened to work at Local Pie.

“We were doing the pizza making and it was very successful. So we thought, why not incorporate teens and adults into this as well to give them an opportunity to practice social skills, and give them an opportunity to learn a life skill of cooking,” Townes said.

A chef suggested a conversation with the manager, Scheuer, who said, “We would love to help you in any way possible.” The event is now held once a month.

Townes then called her friend Carol Bartholomew, co-founder of Pockets Full of Sunshine. Pre-COVID, the PFS “Rays,” or members, had been doing their own cooking – baking cookies in the commercial kitchen at the University of South Carolina Beaufort.

“I told her what I was doing and asked if she would like to promote the program within her Rays, and she said ‘Absolutely.’ After two or three months of doing it, I said ‘Why don’t we actually do a collaboration between LAF and Sunshine,’ and the rest is history,” said Townes.

The program fills up quickly, with only 12 slots available, and they try to make sure everyone gets a chance to participate before they make a repeat visit.

“Sonny is there … and he takes control, and it’s pure love for the people who need him,” Bartholomew said. “He jokes around with them. He doesn’t treat them any differently than just hanging out with them.”

For the participants, it’s a great way to hang out with friends, Bartholomew said. “The pizza gets made, then it gets cooked, and comes out piping hot. Collaborating – basically you’re making a village to build something together. We raise the money and get the programs going, but it takes people like Sonny. Everybody needs a Sonny.”

Winn grew up in the area, and studied early childhood education in college. This opportunity was right up his alley.

“When I heard they wanted to start a program here, it was something I wanted to do because I love helping people and kids, and it was just giving back to the community,” Winn said. “It’s like a pizza social. We do it upstairs, and we get to talk with them, see what they’ve been doing in their lives. While we talk, we bring up ingredients for pizzas.”

While the pizzas are cooking, everyone – including the staff – gets involved setting the tables for a fun dining experience.

Both organizations are nonprofits created with the intent of providing learning opportunities, activities and social events for people with autism and different abilities. Two of Townes’ sons are autistic, and Bartholomew’s adult daughter has special needs. Both women are well aware of limited resources and opportunities for adults with special needs.

“There’s not enough options in this area for our adults and teenagers,” Townes said. “I think there seems to be focus on the youth with special needs, but we can’t forget that ‘youth’ is for a very short period of time. Once they hit adulthood, that’s for the rest of their lives.”

Bartholomew said educating the community on the need is endless, and the need is great.

“We serve a population (starting at) at age 21,” she said. “There’s pretty limited resources and opportunities after school. Some of our folks have jobs, some attend Pockets, but when you leave the school system, you leave a whole lot behind. You’re not a part of anything.”

Bartholomew said the purpose of Pockets was to try to fill in the gaps. “We are a part of the community, and want to be part of the big, vibrant community,” she said.

Pockets serves 60 participants and their families. LAF serves more than 2,500 families living between Charleston and Hilton Head with a small team of only four people. They both could use volunteers in many positions.

“I am the only person in Beaufort County, so I rely on a whole lot of help, a lot of volunteers,” Townes said.

Townes said in January LAF will return to holding pizza socials for the siblings of those with autism.

“I came up with Pizza and Pops for children with autism and their dads, and also a separate session for autism siblings, for kids and teenagers who have a sibling with autism,” said Townes. “I did that because I have a 12-year-old with two brothers who have moderate and severe autism, and he needs support as much as the children with autism.”

She said there will also be Parents Night Out, a monthly respite opportunity. The three-hour program is held at the Sandbox at Tanger II Outlet.

LAF also provides family support services. “Basically we serve a family from the moment they suspect their child may have autism,” Townes said. “We hold their hand through the diagnosis and throughout their life, getting them connected with every possible resources.”

Pockets, in its sixth year, currently operates a micro-business of screen-printing. During the pandemic, they began a pen pal program, and delivered care packages of craft items so members could go to their home and still be doing things staying connected to the Pockets program.

“We try to create and make things, and we’re out in markets selling our items. So you’re basically buying our things and the money is going back into the program,” said Bartholomew.

Making pizza together at Local Pie is a special way the two organizations work together. “This is just one little piece of what we do as an organization,” Bartholomew said. “We love collaborating. It’s vital to our community and both our organizations, even though LAF is serving children and we serve adults.”

The proof in collaborating is in the pizzas, the party and partnerships.

“When you walk in the door of Local Pie, it’s a happening place and it’s lots of fun, but after you’re there for a while, the real fun is happening upstairs, and the staff and all want to be up there, too,” Bartholomew said. “And when you walk out, the people downstairs know there’s something special happening upstairs. It’s pretty magical.”

For more information on Lowcountry Autism Foundation, email stownes@LAFinc.org, call 843-800-7171, ext. 3 or visit lafinc.org.

For more information about Pockets Full of Sunshine, visit pocketsfullofsun.org.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.