When he sees his buddy Bob, Eric Onervik stops folding towels in thehotel laundry room. His eyes light up. He spots Sheila, another buddy, then catches a glimpse of his buddy Winston walking down the hall.He breaks out in a smile.
The 18-year-old in a wheelchair lacks no friends at the Comfort Inn/BWI, where he works a summer job.
A resident of Bello Machre's program for the mentally disabled, Eric jokes with his co-workers, eats lunch with them, attends their parties and inspires them.
In summers past, Eric spent his days at camp.
"This year, I decided it's time to find a job," said the teen-ager. "It's a lot of fun. I like everyone here. They're nice people."
He throws in a plug for his co-workers, one for his boss, one for his job coach and one for the staff at Bello Machre. He plugs himself too, for a permanent job. His co-workers chuckle.
Bob English, operations manager and executive housekeeper, likes the enthusiasm. It's contagious, he says. Since late June, when Eric and fellow Bello Machre resident Billy Matcuk, 19, began working three days a week, productivity among hotel staffers has risen 25 percent.
"They work real hard and put effort into it," English said of the two workers. "It's really brought the staff together. It's a big plus for everyone here."
Today, Eric and Billy are pulling laundry duty. They come towork Monday through Wednesday, folding towels, delivering supplies to the housekeepers or helping out with the dusting. On the boys' daysoff, hotel workers want to know, "Where are the guys? Are they coming in?" English says.
Years ago, disabled people, especially those with more severe handicaps, rarely found their way into the work world of the able-bodied. But at Bello Machre, Griff Hall and Robert Ireland are doing their part to see that change.
The Glen Burnie-basedresidential program helps people with mental disabilities live and work independently. Since 1972, it has run five group homes on its Freetown Road campus. Bello Machre also operates 28 community homes throughout the county. Three to seven residents live in each home, along with a counselor.
In the past, Bello Machre has focused solely on residential services for its 105 clients, who either attend public schools or, once they graduate, work in sheltered workshops, said Hall,director of development.
In late June, he and executive director Ireland started a summer jobs program for their school-age residents.
"The idea was to get (residents) in the door to a business and toget the business familiar with what disabled individuals can do," Hall said. "When it comes time to find a job, we can say to a prospective employer (that) they have experience on their resume."
"For so many years, it has been 'out of sight, out of mind,' " said Ireland, adding that public and private programs over the past decade have enabled more people with mental disabilities to live and work in the community.
Bello Machre's program relies on job coaches, who accompany clients to their jobs and help them work. The job coaches graduallyreduce their assistance, leaving the clients to work on their own.
Through contacts in the Northern Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce, Hall found jobs for five residents of community homes, including Eric, a graduate of the Eason School in Millersville, and Billy, astudent there.
Adrian Rengel, 19, Robert Roth, 18, and Boyd Kinnear, 17, also live in Bello Machre homes and are working this summer at Chesapeake Graphic Impressions in Glen Burnie.
Last week, Adrian, Robert and Boyd sat at tables at the rear of the printing shop, with fliers piled up nearby.
Assisted and encouraged by their job coaches, the boys pasted labels on fliers.
"Work now. Pool later," job coach Diane Fisk repeated to Boyd, whose inquisitive blue eyes darted around the room. "If you work hard now, pool later. We brought your bathing suit.
"He's real active. It's hard for him to sit," saidFisk, explaining her constant encouragement and how far Boyd has progressed in just a few weeks.
Gary Rankin, owner of the commercial printing business, said his employees have "taken to the kids. They take care of them."
They also save his employees from jobs such as stuffing and labeling envelopes, which they'd be required to do otherwise, Rankin said.
"These kids get the job done and get it done right," he said.