County young people with disabilities get STEP up

March 05, 1995|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Sun Staff Writer

Stephen Donnelly, a parcel pickup person, is a friendly face at Giant Food Inc. at the Chatham Mall in Ellicott City. He's pretty determined to make sure the customer is satisfied.

"You need help?" he asked shopper Nancy Thompson, who got out of her Bronco II recently to load groceries into the rear of her vehicle.

"Yes," she replied.

Mr. Donnelly, who is retarded but can be educated, quickly helped her load the blue plastic bags.

"Thank you very much," Ms. Thompson said.

"You're welcome," he answered.

Mr. Donnelly, 22, has worked for Giant for two years. He got the part-time job through STEP, the Students to Employment Program. The program, begun in 1985, helps county students with disabilities make the transition from high school to the work force.

Howard County gives $200,000 annually to help pay for the program, which Judith English, rehabilitation supervisor for the state Division of Rehabilitation Services in the Department of Education, says is unusual. Most counties make programs for the disabled demonstrate a critical need before they can get funding, she said.

The 36 students in the STEP program have the opportunity to learn basic work skills and get jobs, depending upon their individual needs.

They might not have had the chance if concerned parents had not contacted the county eight years ago to ask for more assistance, Ms. English said. The parents wanted employment support for their children.

"A lot of students coming out of school didn't have anywhere to go for jobs," Ms. English said. "They were floundering around."

Several agencies, including the board of education and Howard County Association of Retarded Citizens, developed STEP.

"Supportive employment is a new concept," Ms. English said. Years ago, the disabled were given piecemeal jobs in "sheltered workshops" and paid below minimum wage, she said.

Students in STEP work with a counselor and job coach to undergo evaluations, work adjustment and job placement. They obtain jobs ranging from warehouse work to fast food work to office work, said Wendy Duffey, program coordinator for Developmental Services Group Inc., a private nonprofit rehabilitation agency. Salaries range from minimum wage to more than $9 an hour.

"Steve's just done wonderfully," said his job coach, CeliCaskey. "He's friendly. He's personable. He always puts the customer first."

Ms. Thompson praised Mr. Donnelly's willingness to help. "I think it's nice," she said. "You're used to seeing him here. If he's not here, you wonder where he is."

STEP works and is growing, Ms. Duffey said. It began with only six students and now has six times that number. And fiscal 1994 records showed that it had an 86 percent success rate, meaning that those who found jobs kept them. Only two students dropped out.

"We are getting a lot of calls from other counties" interested iduplicating the program, Ms. Duffey said.

"I think the program is good because I can talk to Celia [Caskey] when I think there's something right or wrong," said Virginia Donnelly, Mr. Donnelly's mother. "We can discuss it."

The Ellicott City woman said her son was 4 or 5 when he was diagnosed as being retarded but educable. "I can't really define what happened," she said. "Somewhere along the line, something went wrong."

Giant is the second place of employment for Mr. Donnelly, an Oakland Mills High School graduate, his mother said.

When his family moved to California in 1987, his mother helped him get a dish-washing job at Pizza Hut because it was the only employer she knew that hired disabled people.

She's happy her son enjoys his work at Giant. "He's doing well," she said. "I'm proud of him."

She usually drops him off at work five days a week. His grandfather picks him up.

Wearing his red Giant cap and a red jacket, Mr. Donnelly works in the parcel pickup area.

On this day, his cheeks and ears were red from the cold. He lined up the silver carts and enthusiastically asked shoppers: "You need help?"

When he got a "yes," he loaded the groceries.

"It's fun," Mr. Donnelly said.

Co-worker Arthur Nelson, a deli clerk, said Mr. Donnelly is a good worker.

"He's cheerful. He tries to help everybody," he said. "He has a great sense of humor. He's just really friendly. He really is.

"I like to see people like that especially because they work well with people."

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