In the spotless green and brown Hardee's uniform and hot-pink Hardee's cap, she makes hamburgers and fries, sweeps and mops the floor, cleans windows and tables, and each week brings home a paycheck that recently paid for a trip to Hawaii.
Cyndi Schmidt, 21, a recent graduate of Cedar Lane School for the mentally disabled, has worked for four years at Hardee's in Wilde Lake.
When she performed the Heimlich maneuver on a choking customer, the Laurel resident received special employee recognition. Schmidt also has received a County Council award for demonstrating leadership. She and her boss were invited to a Chamber of Commerce breakfast with local business leaders, where Schmidt delivered a speech.
"She used to be very afraid of being out alone . . . away from us, (and in) talking to people she was very hesitant," said her mother, Margaret Schmidt. She credits a county program for much of the change in her daughter.
"When I was 15, I was afraid. I'm not afraid no more," Schmidt said.
Schmidt got her job through the county schools' Work Study program, which helps special education students maintain part-timejobs in the community.
Getting and maintaining a job is the climax of several years of education and training -- "the peak of the mountain," said Sharon Tucker, a Work Study coordinator at Cedar Lane last summer. Students start Work Study at age 16 or 17, with training inthe classroom.
Next, they volunteer at sites like the Howard County General Hospital or the Florence Bain Senior Center. And, finally,they apply and interview for paid jobs. Among the companies that have participated are Jerry's Subs Shop, the Athletic Club, Produce Galore, Kahler Hall and Kinder Care. However, because of the lagging economy, businesses have been hiring less, said program organizers.
For the students, it's "an opportunity to have a normal work experiencethat many of their peers are experiencing . . . to make them part ofour community," said Tucker. It's also a way to prepare them for economic independence and the real world of competitive employment.
The program is open to local high school students enrolled in special education classes for learning, emotional or physical limitations, and others who are mentally disabled, like Schmidt, and attend Cedar Lane.
Hardee's manager Jesse Walker called Schmidt an "out standing"employee.
"We give everyone a chance, and she's proven herself worthy of the job," he said.
"Most of the time, you see a change in students. They start feeling better about themselves," said Elmer Wolter, the Work Study coordinator who works with participants during the school year.
Schmidt spent three years training and volunteeringbefore working at a paid job. Now that she's graduated from Cedar Lane, she still works at Hardee's but through a different program underthe state-run Targeted Jobs for Industry. Targeted Jobs provides employment counselors to assist and coach its disabled clients, picking up where the school system and Work Study left off.
Schmidt's activities are not limited to work. She attends art classes, ice skates, rides horses, gardens at home, helps at her church's nursery, and keeps company to an elderly couple in her neighborhood.
But her success doesn't mean that the road was without struggle. For years she hasstruggled with her speech. When she was 3, she fell, had a stroke, suffered brain damage and was paralyzed for weeks. She struggled to feed herself, to walk or climb stairs, and to speak -- at first she could only pronounce one-syllable words. She still has trouble speaking,and sometimes is frustrated when others don't understand.
She says she has also faced prejudice. Twice, a group of teen-agers entered the restaurant and poured salt and pepper over tables that she had cleaned.
"I guess they thought it was funny to be mean to someone who's handicapped," her mother said. Most customers, however, have beensupportive, she said.
"Once when I went to pick (Cyndi) up, this lady was fussing at one of the other employees, and Cyndi walked up to her and said, 'Don't worry, be happy,' and they all cracked up," her mother said.
Working four to eight hours a day, five to six daysa week, and saving the paychecks has meant Schmidt was able to do something she's long had in mind -- go to Hawaii. She flew with her family to Hawaii and spent two weeks there.
"She loved it there. . . . She didn't want to come home," her mother said, smiling.
And Schmidt says she plans to return -- "Hawaii, I'm going to be back, watchout!"