Employees at Sahara, a construction management company based in Bountiful, Utah, have a long history of community service through the SaharaCares Foundation. Founded in 2005, the 501(c)(3) charitable organization initially focused on assisting children who are disadvantaged, seriously ill or come from financially challenged families. But that focus narrowed to children with autism when employees met colleague Lisa Ridges’ son. 

In addition to the personal connection Sahara employees formed with Ridges’ son, they recognized children with autism were underserved in their community. In 2005, the company held an Autism Carnival for about 100 people. Autistic children and their siblings enjoyed games and activities while their parents networked and obtained valuable information from experienced health care professionals. Originally intended as a one-time event, the SaharaCares Foundation decided to host the carnival annually after seeing how much it meant to the children and their families. 

In September 2011, SaharaCares hosted its seventh Autism Carnival with 550 autistic children and their immediate families attending for a total of more than 3,000 participants. Admission to the carnival was free. The children, called VIPs, enjoyed typical carnival games, a trampoline and sensory stations that appeal to people with autism. The sensory stations included rice, beans and bubbles for the kids to touch. In an effort to accommodate children who prefer a quiet space, carnival organizers brought in an instructor to lead the kids in tai chi, a Chinese martial art practiced for its defense training and health benefits. 

A carnival this large required many enthusiastic volunteers and donations. The majority of Sahara employees participated, as well as staff from the Utah Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), which provided food for the event. The ABC Utah Chapter also solicited financial donations from other members, and Sahara recruited its subcontractors to serve as volunteers. 

“It’s great to see all the people you work with throughout the year come together to make this event happen,” says Ridges, who is now president of the SaharaCares Foundation. “Every subcontractor or outside group that participates returns to help the following year.” 

Sahara’s devotion to children living with autism doesn’t stop there. In addition to the carnival, the foundation developed a series of videos to raise awareness for the rising prevalence of autism in the community and to train others on how to handle a child with the condition. The first video was geared toward law enforcement officials and has been extremely well received. SaharaCares receives orders from all over the world and from various professional settings. Those interested in purchasing the video only pay the shipping cost. The SaharaCares Foundation is in the process of producing another training video for a non-denominational religious setting. 

“We’re so proud that this is a unique focus for a construction company,” Ridges says. “While we provide buildings and beautiful structures, we need to help in other ways as well. It’s exciting for all of us to be part of a really good cause.”