A blue pick-up parks in front of a duplex near the Rio Grande Trail, an Ascendigo Autism Services logo on the door. Two galvanized metal trash cans are bungeed in back. A young guy steps gently from the passenger door, green compost baggies in hand, and disappears through a backyard gate. He returns. Lifting the trash can lid with focus, he places a compost bag within, repositions the lid and off they go.
“Tuesday is all Ascendigo clients. Wednesdays, he’ll do a run for Evergreen Zero Waste,” says Ascendigo’s Andy Adams of his companion, Max (at the request of Ascendigo, Max is referred to only by first name in this article). “And then Thursdays are another Ascendigo run, where we’ve actually got Max riding his bike independently.”
A year of this compost route has been a life changer for Max, a 22 year-old on the autism spectrum.
“What this compost has done for him?” Adams asks. “He knows he’s gotta get up for work, that he’s gotta dress appropriately.” (Adams whispers that Max dressed up “extra special” for the Sopris Sun!) “He knows he gotta have everything ready. He manages all of his green compost bags — the big bags or the small bags. He’ll make sure to talk to us to order more. This is his gig,” Adams emphasizes. “At this point, I don’t offer any prompting of any help, really. I just talk to him when he’s in the truck and just drive him from place to place.”
Cherubically handsome, Max is a strapping, affectionate fellow well-known for his hugs or placing his face next to yours. Sometimes, a mind melt, forehead to forehead; other times, cheek to cheek, where you can feel his facial fuzz and the heart-warming, subtle movement of his smile muscles. Max beams at pretty girls — his favorite compost customers — and Adams laughs, describing how Max tends to “make a little more noise” at those places, humming and cooing, knowing he might snag a “hello” or smile.
Having agency and autonomy brings smiles, too.
“On a day like today — Thursdays — I’ll just send him out: down the Rio Grande, down the river, past Satank; do one of our staff houses. Come back across the Satank bridge, make a stop in Satank.” Adams will wait at Silo over coffee. “Everyone’s texting me, of course: Oh, he just left here/just came here; left there. The only time I really help him is to get across 133. Just to make sure. It can get a little hectic; I kind of bird-dog him from behind, just to make sure he doesn’t get hit by a car.”
Max first came to Carbondale through Ascendigo’s adventure camps. Through several years of life skills training, Max gained the confidence to trade Houston’s 10,062 square miles of intensity for the two square miles of safety and warmth he’s found here in Carbondale. He lives in his own home today, with residential skills trainers — Adams is one of them — that continue to help Max develop into adulthood.
“He loves this community so much,” Adams says. Taking care of “his” town is super important to Max.
While Tuesday through Thursday are “big vocational work days,” Mondays and Fridays are more free-form. As Ascendigo’s property manager, Adams often includes Max on his rounds.
“If I know there’s a light bulb out, I’ll go: ‘Come on, dude, let’s go change the light bulbs at the Red House!’ He gets all pumped,” Adams chuckles.
Max knows where the bulbs are stored and which type of bulb to use.
“He’s very smart and very responsible, but we’ll have mornings where it’s a powder day: ‘Let’s bag out of work; go catch first chair at Snowmass!’” Adams says. Max loves skiing and has recently even started solo runs. “But Max will want to walk up and down Main Street [first]. He knows that over the weekend, people are flicking cigarette butts, leaving coffee cups or beer cans. Until his Carbondale is clean, he won’t ski.”
Soon, Max will walk the Crown and Dinkle roads with Adams for the third year running, to ensure they’re clean before the road closes. In the spring, after snowmelt, Max will gather a winter’s worth of snowmobiler beer bottles and cans.
“He wants to make sure that ‘his areas’ are clean. He’s so dedicated. He’s really grown through this program,” Adams marvels. “It’s amazing to watch. And amazing to be part of.” When they ski or hit up the shops on Main Street, everyone knows them, “high-fiving, talking it up. Max led me into this, being everyone’s buddy,” Adams says.
Leaning back in a Bonfire booth, Adams shares “Max stories” for half an hour. Max, who often speaks in third person, is clearly as special to Adams as Adams is to Max, who has just spent two weeks visiting his parents in Houston. Adopting Max’s inner-circle, raspy voice, Adams mimics Max upon his return: “Max is home.”