Allan Soto: On a mission to change lives

The Means Report

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – The Means Report wants to introduce you to a very special member of our community. His name is Allan Soto and he’s going to talk about the things that he is trying to do not only to revitalize this great town, especially in the downtown area, the central business district there, but also what he’s trying to do for our young people, children, and those with special needs who need help. What happens when the school system and others who have shepherd these people through most of their lives stop and the kids age out and they’re on their own? Allan Soto and company step in and try to help them out. He is doing incredible work. If you don’t already know him you certainly will cross paths with him.

Brad Means: Allan Soto, thank you for taking the time to be with us today. And thanks for all you do for our community and for those kids and others.

Allan Soto: Absolutely, Brad, thanks for having me.

Brad Means: I want to talk to you about the children, certainly, and others with special needs and the services that you’re trying to provide for them. But first, let’s talk about the services that you’re trying to provide for our great city in the downtown revitalization efforts. How are things going on that front? Did the pandemic impact your ability to do anything on the real estate front? Kind of take me through what’s happening on that side.

Allan Soto: Yeah, absolutely. The pandemic, obviously it’s something unfortunate that we didn’t want. But thankfully it really didn’t have an impact on our efforts to continue to create more opportunity downtown for our great city. One of the things we’re trying to do is just, you know acquiring different real estate downtown and starting businesses that individuals in the community that are already downtown can participate in. We certainly don’t want this great thing that’s happening with this whole revitalization to outgrow the community that lives down here currently.

Brad Means: Well, do the other merchants help you out and give you leads? Or do they ever give you any push back and say, you know please don’t mess with my section of Broad Street, for example, what’s that relationship like?

Allan Soto: Oh, we get along great with the community that’s down here and all of the merchants and proprietors down here. I think everybody in downtown Augusta is kind of united in that front and trying to make everything as good as possible down here, because everybody here is aware that if one of us succeeds, we all succeed. The more traffic and opportunity we create down here the more we all benefit from that. So it’s been a very welcoming feeling since we started, you know, doing things down here.

Brad Means: No, that’s good to hear. And it’s a pretty tight knit group down there, you’re right. Now, a lot of people watching I know that 99% of our newsroom has heard of or visited Pineapple Ink Tavern. Pineapple Ink Tavern, man you did open those doors at the beginning of the pandemic. How is that going? And I hope you’re getting a lot of support.

Allan Soto: We definitely are. And we definitely opened, we literally opened our doors one week before the pandemic. I mean, we opened up on a Monday and Friday, you know, the hammer dropped, and everything closed down. It was like, Oh my gosh, are you serious? But you know, thankfully Pineapple Ink, I know it’s kind of one of the reasons that a lot of people have heard about me, but it’s really just a small portion of what it is that we do. So we ran that business right from the beginning you know, we cash-flowed all of our operations. So we were able to survive the pandemic, thankfully. I know a lot of other businesses weren’t as fortunate but we were able to weather it through. And then when we did open our doors back up in late summer of last year for dining room patrons, it was a welcome sight. I mean, it’s just been going really well since then. And we’re proud to be downtown and to be able to serve downtown. And we’re so happy with the reception that we’ve gotten not just from our patrons and diners but also from neighboring restaurants and things as such. You wouldn’t feel like if you open a new business, everybody would be so welcoming, but it’s the complete opposite. Everybody has been extremely welcoming of us.

Brad Means: We should also point out, Allan that you are trying to help others get involved and start up their own businesses as well. How do you do that from a capital standpoint? How can you kind of give somebody a hand up who needs it?

Allan Soto: Yeah, absolutely. Well, our parent company is called Vinea Capital. And what that does is it owns all the other businesses that we have, but also we’d like to try to invest in other entrepreneurs and individuals that also want to do things to help the community. So if somebody wanted to, they can contact us and we can at the very least we can have a conversation and give insight and share our experience. And maybe if it’s something that kind of really aligns with our vision and there’s a lot of synergy maybe it’s something that we could actually get involved with from a financial and an operational standpoint with them.

Brad Means: What do you envision for downtown Augusta and what kind of timeline will it take to get it to where you want it to be?

Allan Soto: From our standpoint or from the community as a whole?

Brad Means: Just from your standpoint if you tried to picture the perfect downtown and all of your dreams coming true from a redevelopment standpoint would it just be a place where we all went to shop and eat and everything was new or new looking?

Allan Soto: Well, that’s certainly something that we would like to see you know, lots of places to dine and shop. I started at a restaurant because I’m very passionate about the food and beverage industry. So clearly I’d like to see, you know a downtown it’s more robust and a lot more choices for dining and also shopping and things. One of those areas where you can come in the morning and not leave until the evening. You can come in the morning, do some shopping grab some lunch, maybe head over to the Miller, The Imperial and watch a show and then maybe grab a dinner, a drink afterwards. That’d be great, but also somewhere where people can live and work. A lot more vibrant downtown residential scene as well as opportunities for employment. And not just F-and-B opportunities but maybe some more of the white collar opportunities. We’ve got a lot of corporations and professional offices down here and I’d like to see them all get filled up and I’d like to see even more development. You know, it’d be great if one day none of the office buildings down here had any vacancy because there was so much opportunity that downtown started to expand to the parallel streets down here.

Brad Means: Yeah, you’re right. The potential is so there and it’s just waiting to be fulfilled. How did you get your start? Who gave you your seed money to get this whole thing started?

Allan Soto: Oh, wow. Wow, I started in 2007 with a business called Soto ALG working with adults with developmental disabilities. And I was pretty fresh out of college at the time. So really didn’t have anything in means of funding or financing, but I did have some money socked away. I know that a lot of people that have listened to the podcasts have heard the whole story of how I got Wendy’s cups out of dumpsters and made some money and kind of use that to help fund the first venture. But also had a lot of help along the way. It wasn’t that it wasn’t just a self-made situation. There were a lot of community partners in the community that really embraced us in Washington, Georgia is where we were at at the time. And there was a bank there F and M Bank. They’re still my bank to this day. But they were the ones that took a shot out at me when nobody else would at the time. So they kind of helped me fund that initial business venture.

Brad Means: Wow, it is off and running for sure and great things are happening in our community because of your efforts and great things are happening with our young people because of you and your family’s efforts as well. And we’re going to talk about those in just a moment. Allan Soto is our special guest on The Means Report.

Part 2

Brad Means: Welcome back to The Means Report. Allan Soto is our special guest developer, revitalizer, entrepreneur, helper of others, you name it. He is a good man and we are glad that he’s with us right now. But I asked you Allan, before the commercial break how you got your start and you gave a great answer. I thought that fast food played some sort of role in your humble beginnings.

Allan Soto: Well, it did. It did back when I was kind of still trying to figure out what to do. There was a time where Wendy’s, the fast food restaurant, actually had a promotion with AirTran Airlines. And they were offering that if you collected 32 of these cups you could get a free one-way ticket. You can redeem them for a one-way ticket anywhere that AirTran flew in the continental United States. So me and a friend of mine had an idea let’s start collecting these cups. And initially we just wanted to do it because we wanted to get roundtrip tickets for ourselves. And we figured, you know, this was a limited time promotion. So to collect 32 Wendy’s cups that’s a lot of dining at Wendy’s. You know, I know I’ve seen stuff like that before on cups or wrappers or boxes for fast food and you kinda just throw it away. ‘Cause you said, there’s no way I’m getting 32. So we thought maybe a lot of other people did the same thing and would just throw it away. So I remember one time we went to the Wendy’s dumpster at night just to collect these cups for ourselves. And there were so many of them in there. And luckily Wendy’s at the time had clear garbage bags and these cups were blue which is different than their regular yellow and red cups. So they were very easy to spot. And we didn’t just collect enough for us. We noticed we started collecting several hundred more. And then we made it a thing where we’d go every night and collect as many of these cups as we could. And then we turned around and started selling them on eBay which was, you know, that was still an early time for eBay. And we didn’t know if people would buy them or not but we sold them in droves. And at the end of the day we ended up each with over $10,000 a piece.

Brad Means: Oh my word.

Allan Soto: Yeah, and at the time eBay and PayPal kind of flagged us for that. ‘Cause they was like, wait these people are selling cups online and getting all this money? So they froze the accounts and everything, which was kind of fortunate for us because the money stayed in there. So I didn’t have a chance to spend it. And by the time I was ready to do something and the money was released I had thought of this business idea that I wanted to do in Washington, Georgia. So I had that money still. And that was what became the initial seed money for Soto ALG.

Brad Means: So Soto ALG was born out of a brilliant young idea and it’s just blossomed ever since. What you do, and tell me if I’m wrong. What you and your sister have done is to try to fill the gap to try to pick up where the system leaves off. So I’m picturing a child, a young adult who’s aged out of the local school system but they still have special needs that need to be addressed. They still need assistance. Is that where you all step in?

Allan Soto: Absolutely, that’s one of the areas that we step in is when somebody graduates. The special ed departments right now they’re set up to serve an adult through the age of 21. So somebody could actually stay in special ed through 21. But then most of us don’t think, well what happens when they age out of special ed? What do they do now? Are they just, you know, resigned to sitting on a sofa somewhere or just staying at home and you know what happens? And that’s where we step in. The state has several programs, you know the most prominent ones being through the NOW and the comp waivers under the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disability. And what we ended up doing was we formed Sota ALG and we became a contractor directly with the state of Georgia. And we provide those supports that end at special ed. So we provide skill building, community inclusion activities, job coaching, pre-vocational training, job placement. We also provide in-home supports where we can actually go into the home and provide assistance with activities of daily living. We have homes where the individual can come and live in one of the homes that we set up and it becomes their home like this. This is their actual physical home and it’s treated as such. And we provide the care that they need 24-7 there. And addition to that, we also have a host home model which is sort of like a foster care sort of situation for an adult where it’s the best way to describe it, it’s like a life sharing model. You’ll have a family or other adults that will actually take in an individual and make them part of their family and do a life sharing model with them.

Brad Means: What about the school systems themselves? I had the opportunity to give our Golden Apple Award two weeks ago to a special needs teacher out of Lincolnton, Georgia. Are the schools doing the best they can to help these folks become productive members of their community? When you see them, when you get them have they had a great foundation until then?

Allan Soto: Oh, absolutely. The special ed teachers that we encounter, I mean those are God’s angels here on earth. They do such a good job. The special ed departments, the school systems, they do a great job and they’ve been great partners with us. They let us go in there and start helping the parents with the process because we believe we’re here to serve individuals. You know, our bottom line is secondary. Our primary mission is to help these individuals live the best life possible and to take part in the story of their lives and to help their caregivers, their parents, their siblings, you know to do the best job possible with the resources that we have and the resources that they have. The school systems have been great in letting us go in there and just help and bring awareness to the situation, to the different funding sources, to the different programs and help these caregivers and individuals have a leg up on the whole process. I think the biggest hindrance in anything is like anything else. It’s just resources, capabilities, and time and money. But they do the best that they can with what they have. And they do a tremendous job and I’m proud to get to work alongside them and call a lot of them colleagues and friends.

Brad Means: I know a lot of those colleagues and friends that you have grown to know and love over the years find themselves on the autism spectrum. And when you notice that, and when you lived that it helped give birth to another organization under your watch, it’s Able Kids Services. What is Able Kids doing for those with special needs on the autism spectrum? How do you help them live their best life?

Allan Soto: Absolutely, you know, it was in 2011 We moved to Augusta from Washington. So we had still businesses in Washington and that we started in 2007 and then we’d come to Augusta in 2011. And we noticed that a larger percentage of the individuals that we were serving fell on the autism spectrum. So we started kind of researching that, well, how can we be a better service to them? How can we serve them better? And that’s when we learned about ABA services, so applied behavior analysis, and that it was an effective therapy for autism. It’s not a cure. There’s not a cure right now, but it was something that would help them lead a productive life. And like any medical diagnosis, the earlier you can intervene, the greater likelihood of success and outcome that you can have. So that was in 2015, four years after looking and seeing all this, that we started Able Kids Services and that specifically targeted children on the autism spectrum because at that point we had Soto ALG that served adults 18 and older. But we wanted to do something for that for the children. And we want it to be as much of a community resource as possible. So we started Able Kids and we serve right now we serve kids up to six years old. We basically look at ourselves as getting them ready for school, getting them ready for the environment and the different challenges that they’re going to encounter once they get into a school setting. So we set up all our clinics to do just that. And then along the way we noticed that a lot of the kids that we were serving, the parents would come pick them up during the day, they’d come pick them up on a Tuesday for an hour, bring them back come pick them up on Thursday for an hour, bring them back. And when we started kind of looking into it we noticed that they were taking them to other complimentary services that they had. They were going to occupational therapy. They were going to speech therapy. So we said, why don’t we just provide all those services under one roof for the parents? And you know, like take a little bit off their plate because they’re not only having to play chauffeur but they’re also having to play the coordinator of all these services. They’re talking to one therapist telling them what the other therapist is doing. And what if all the therapists could just talk to each other directly? If we had them all under one roof and the parent didn’t have to run the child from location to location.

Brad Means: So Able Kids is able to do that. How do you know when you’re making progress, Allan? How do you know that what you’re doing is working through the life of a child?

Allan Soto: Oh, you see it. I mean, it’s very visible. And you have parents come to you and tell you thank you so much. And they tell you the differences that they’re seeing. It’s very visible.

Brad Means: Why are you like this? What was it in your life, in your childhood? Whenever it occurred that made the light bulb come on and say, I need to help these folks?

Allan Soto: Well, I really, I got into this field and I noticed a lot of the individuals that tend to be in the special needs field have a personal connection, whether it be, you know a sibling or a child with a disability and that kind of drew them into this world. And it really wasn’t like that for me at all. I actually got into this world because I wanted to get involved in elder care at the time because my grandfather had actually been in a nursing home for a short while while I was in high school and early on in college. And I just remember walking into that nursing home and kind of feeling very depressed. If you think of your stereotypical nursing home you walk down the halls and there’s a lot of individuals in wheelchairs or you walk by rooms and there’s people staring at walls. And I just remember how depressing that was. And I remember we were able to get my grandfather out of that home and get him the care he needed at his home. So he was able to live the rest of his time there with his family in the home he grew up in. But I remember thinking, man, this is depressing. I want to do something to help him. And at the time I was a young 23 year old in South Florida and there was no way I can get involved in a multi-billion dollar industry. So I came up to Georgia thinking I’d do it up here. And then kind of just back-doored into working with individuals with special needs. And at the time I figured, well, let me just do this for a year or two. Get my feet wet a little bit, build up some financial resources. And then I’ll return back to working with elderly individuals. And you know that old saying, if you want to make God laugh tell him your plan. Well God had a good chuckle at that plan because here we are 14 years later, it’s still what I’m doing. And I’m convinced that I know that this is one of the reasons God put me on this earth was to work with this population. And if it was not easy. There was literally a lot of blood, sweat, tears. I probably a lot more tears early on when I was kind of just hit over the head by what this really entailed. It was not something easy. It was not something that was just going to happen overnight. So I could go do what I thought I really wanted to do. But over time it’s become so near and dear to my heart where everybody that we’ve worked with you know, whether it be directly on my team or the individuals that we serve has really become a part of my family. And that’s how, how we look at this.

Brad Means: Any chance that you are comfortable enough with this template that you have developed over the years to take it to other towns, other communities? Is that kind of expansion maybe in the cards?

Allan Soto: Absolutely, you know that Soto ALG started in Washington, Georgia. We moved to Augusta. We currently have locations in Savannah now as well. And we’re looking to grow throughout the state. And then Able Kids started in Augusta as well, but we have locations in Savannah. We have locations that are opening in the next 30 to 45 days in Columbia and Atlanta. So we’re definitely continuing to grow. As long as we can do it and we could do it effectively, and it’s about the individuals and not about the bottom line and we can make a difference, we’re going to do it. And it doesn’t matter how far we have to go. We’re here, we’re here to help other people. That’s why God put us here. That’s why he lets us do what we do on a day-to-day basis. And we’re certainly going to continue to do that whether it’s an Augusta, Columbia or any other state that you can imagine.

Brad Means: I know you mentioned the response that you’ve gotten not only from some of the clients but certainly their families. How often are they able to pull you aside and say, you know in what perhaps is our darkest hour as moms and dads, you’re the light? You’re the person who helps give us hope that our kids are going to turn out, okay.

Allan Soto: Not as often this past year as normal. I mean, just cause of the pandemic. And we’re trying not to, you know we’re trying to kind of insulate ourselves just for everybody else’s sake to not have as much crossing over. But you know usually you’d see me everywhere and Soto ALG specifically would have multiple events throughout the year that are open to the community. And these events, a lot of them, we held like at Julian Smith Casino and we would have anybody with a special need can come to it whether you were in our services or not. And those were the most rewarding and energizing events for our team and for me personally, because the parents would come and they would literally seek out and you would see them just hugging the direct care team that would work with their child, the leaders that are overseeing the services. They would come up to me and take photos and stuff. It was, it is a very humbling experience for somebody to come and say that you have made such a difference in their world because the reality is that they’ve made, that when they do that to you it makes such a difference in your world that it reinforces that you’re doing the right thing and that we’re doing the right thing. And it just makes us want to do more of it.

Brad Means: Probably my last question. And it’s just to ask how people can get in touch with you. I know folks over the last half hour have enjoyed what they’ve heard from you. If they have children that they need to bring to you, how does that whole process start?

Allan Soto: Absolutely well, you can go to any of our websites. So for adults, 18 and older, you would go to sotoalg.com and you can connect with us there and find our phone number and reach out to us. And we will talk to anybody, even if they come into our services or not, and we will help you. If you want to go to other services, that’s fine. We just want to help you on your journey and help you get the resources that you and your loved ones need. And with Able Kids to just go to Able Kids, ABLEkids.com and follow the same pathway and reach out to us. And we’d love to hear from you. Additionally, we also continue to do a lot of work in the community, and we’d love for people to get involved with that as well. We serve on a board for Heritage Academy. We’re proud of that. We’re involved with Best Buddies and helping bring that to Georgia. And we recently partnered with Journey Sherwood helping with a literacy program down there to kind of help end generational poverty through literacy. And those you can find it on our social media pages. So vineacapital.com or you can look me up on Instagram or Facebook Allan John Soto and find out more and get involved with some of the causes that we’re very passionate about.

Brad Means: Allan, we can’t thank you enough for taking time out of what is obviously a non-stop schedule to be with us. And please accept our thanks for helping to transform this community and its citizens. We appreciate you.

Allan Soto: Thanks, Brad, appreciate what you’re doing.

Brad Means: Allan Soto, our special guest today.

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The Means Report first aired in January of 2009 offering coverage that you cannot get from a daily newscast. Forget about quick soundbytes -- we deliver an in-depth perspective on the biggest stories. If they are making news on the local or national level, you will find them on the set of The Means Report. Hosted by WJBF NewsChannel 6 anchor, Brad Means, The Means Report covers the topics impacting your life, your town, your state, and your future.