CO+HOOTS Member Pal Experiences Awarded Purple Paladin

by | May 8, 2020

At CO+HOOTS, inclusion forms the core of who we are. Many of our member companies and members share that foundational value. One of those is Melanie Isaacs, who founded social enterprise Pal Experiences to create digital tools to help service providers become more inclusive for families with autism and other special abilities. 

Since its founding in 2012, Pal Experiences has positively changed the experiences for these families at several public and private spaces. Pal Experiences has not only made its partner organizations more aware of the issue but also helped change their processes to accommodate these families like never before.

Because of Melanie’s landscape-changing work, Pal Experiences was recently named Grant Thornton LLP’s 2020 “Purple Paladin,” a prestigious national prize and award that supports nonprofits that tackle real issues and provides them a nationwide platform to support their mission. Currently, there are only three Purple Paladin awards that are being endorsed by Grant Thornton. 

Pal Experiences is the first nonprofit from Arizona to be named a Purple Paladin. This program includes $10,000 in funding, the production of a spotlight video, an awareness campaign including a press release and social posts, an internal staff fundraiser for Pal Experiences and consulting. Pal Experiences will have a team of Grant Thornton employees to assist with business planning, strategy and volunteering. 

With the support of Grant Thornton, Melanie is able to expand her mission on a national level. 

“We are a small non-profit with a small voice, and the most important thing to us is to get the word out there that we have these tools, and that it is important,” Melanie said. “By selecting us to be a Purple Paladin, Grant Thornton has given us a mountain to shout from, and mountains are incredibly helpful for startups.”

Grant Thornton LLP, founded in 1924, is the U.S. member firm of Grant Thornton International Ltd; and one of the world’s leading organizations in independent audit, tax, and advisory firms. Its Purple Paladin program is an initiative that helps emerging organizations with a social impact. Its website states, “Real heroes don’t wear shining armor. They are everyday people who take on real issues.”

On Dec. 12, 2019, Laura Elits, Grant Thornton’s Corporate Social Responsibility Leader, reached out to Melanie on LinkedIn regarding Pal Experiences. 

“She said she found us online and was eager to learn more I filled out an application, had a phone interview, and the last step of the process was a meeting with the CEO, Brad Preber,” Melanie explained.

Grant Thornton is a huge sponsor of the PGA, and the executive team was at the Waste Management Phoenix Open golf tournament. 

“My meeting was set up the morning of the tournament,” Melanie said. “I brought a presentation and dressed in a blazer. I was told my meeting would happen after the CEO welcomed the Grant Thornton employees. Instead, he called me up and announced we had won! I was completely, totally surprised! It was amazing.

Brad Preber said in a press release that Pal Experiences was the ideal Purple Paladin, “They already have many partner organizations serving as ‘Pal Places’ — and Grant Thornton hopes to help them add more across the nation, while also helping them increase their use of technology to improve their services.”

Melanie never had a plan to create a nonprofit or social enterprise; until a chance encounter while she was working toward a masters in marine biology at Western Illinois University. One day on a train ride back from the aquarium where she worked, she happened upon a boy who was really excited about the aquarium staff t-shirt she was wearing. After answering all of his questions about the aquarium, she asked the family if they would like to visit there one day, but the family surprisingly and promptly replied, “No.” 

The parents explained that their son had autism, which made it nearly impossible for him to truly enjoy the experience. Visiting such a public space would be too overwhelming for him, something he could never do. 

Struck by this story, Melanie started her journey to redefine the meaning of inclusivity.  She realized that most of the public spaces were accessible for families with some disabilities through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but very few spaces were set up for families with members who are autistic. 

In the United States, 1 in 6 children have a developmental disability and nearly 70% of all families with children on the Autism spectrum experience social isolation. Not being able to ever go to the movies, a theme park or the aquarium, are situations unimaginable for many of these families. With the founding of Pal Experiences, Melanie has made it her mission to help those families successfully engage in activities within their communities.

Pal Experiences offer technology-based learning tools to help families prepare to visit a public space. Video materials and picture-based feedback tools help Pal Experiences’ partners optimize their tools to provide an amazing experience for all families. Created with a true passion to improve accessibility for all, Pal Experiences has partnered with companies such as the world-renowned Musical Instrument Museum to improve visits for guests of all abilities.

“We believe that it can be socially and economically transformative for a diverse spectrum of people to participate in the activities many of us take for granted.” Melanie said.

For more information on Pal Experiences and Melanie Isaacs, visit