When Fernando Acosta-Rua’s teen daughter became a buddy to a special needs student, it sparked what has become a long-term passion for the company he runs. Acosta-Rua is CEO at Pet Paradise—a Crane Group portfolio company based in Florida with over 50 pet resorts nationwide. Here, we talk with him about how the North Florida School of Special Education stole his heart—and why the whole company is all in. “Our entire company loves them,” he says. “It’s the most incredible, inspiring place. It’s a piece of Heaven on Earth.”
Q:What is the North Florida School of Special Education?
A:It’s a nonprofit school that serves students with differences like Down syndrome and autism. They teach these kids to be self-sufficient using vocational programs and small enterprises they run on site—like a farm and a café. Then they place them in different companies, like grocery stores and food trucks. It’s very unique, very innovative, very high-quality. Families with special-needs children have moved to Jacksonville because of this school.
Q: How did you get involved?
A:My daughter’s high school had a buddies program with them, so she became a buddy. And it rippled from there. We had an off-site manager’s meeting there and spent a day visiting. They have this commercial kitchen where they make dog biscuits, so we sat with them and made some of those. We learned that some students thrive doing repetitive functions, like cleaning. We started thinking about how we could support their work. Our COO/CFO, Kevin English, eventually joined the board. They are our favorite group to work with.
Q: Seven years later, Pet Paradise has become a top client for those Barkin’ Biscuits you helped make that day. How so?
A:We purchase their biscuits and distribute them for free at every Pet Paradise location around the country. We buy a lot of them—$30,000-$50,000 in biscuits a year. Our customers love them! Then they get online and order them too, so now the school gets orders from places as far away as Arizona and New Mexico. The students are now running a national company, so that brings a lot of pride.
Q:You also hired a student to do laundry at a local Pet Paradise resort, yes?
A: We have one student who has been at our University Boulevard location for four years. She’s amazing. Before this, many of our employees had not been around people with special needs, and it’s been so inspiring for our team.
Q:I also understand you have purchased artwork from the school’s advanced art program, yes?
A: We bought a piece of dog art for every resort nationwide. It’s the first time their art program has been commissioned to do work. We made it a big deal and had a big opening event here. They were very proud—and got some press, too!
Q:This clearly lights you up?
A: I could go on and on. We’ve gotten much more out of this relationship than anything we’ve put into it.