Marty Bryson, Secretary of HR Florida, Inc. recently asked me how we ended up with The Dan Marino Foundation, Inc. (DMF) as our Charity of Choice for the 2018 Conference, and to write about it. So, it was Saturday morning, the magazine deadline was looming, and I wanted a little quiet time to reflect and focus on my task at hand. That was most definitely NOT going to happen at my house on a weekend with a hungry teenager (when ISN’T he hungry?), an elderly dog who snores, and a cat who feels entitled to sit on my keyboard. So, I went to one of the local fast food franchises to sit and have some coffee and a biscuit, and take advantage of their free wi-fi to compose my thoughts. Pen to paper as it were.
I was given a little number after I’d paid my bill, grabbed a couple of creamers and a packet of the yellow stuff and went to be seated. A lovely young lady brought me my biscuit and coffee, told me her name was Hannah, inquired if I needed anything else, and told me to enjoy my breakfast. I sat watching Hannah for a while, efficiently wiping tables, greeting newcomers, chatting with regulars and calling many by name, delivering meals, sweeping up the occasional crumbs, and never failing to smile and thank patrons for visiting. I was amazed that she missed not one single person. Bright-eyed and cheerful, this early in the morning? I made a mental note to see what kind of coffee she was drinking.
When Jim Gallo asked me last fall to be the Charity Chair, we spent some time tossing ideas around about who we wanted to help, what organization could use the exposure, and what was our objective. I thought we needed to focus on an organization that was in our wheelhouse as HR professionals, and his idea was to find a way to help those with autism. We chatted about how we could best serve our members, and what we could do to boost the communities, sticking to our core values as a state chapter of SHRM. Sure, no problem. Hannah brought me some more coffee and, get this, creamers and yellow packets without me asking, and smiled again. She told me she’d keep my coffee cup full because it looked like I was working hard. I made another mental note to not frown at my keyboard while typing. I blew off the crumbs from my keyboard, fixed my coffee and got back at it.
I had no idea how to select a worthy organization, so I did what most folks do—I googled it. I had a few objectives—a charity that is in Florida, is employment centered in some way, and represented something relatable. We’ve assisted some very worthy groups in the past, but how many of them did we think about after the conference? Was there any way that we could take what we learn from the charity back to our organizations and keep it in our minds? I know, pipe dream really, but I could try.
I stumbled across the DMF website and immediately thought that a name like Dan Marino would be an attention grabber for sure—it certainly made me click through their site. They are an organization focused on young adults with developmental disabilities, including autism spectrum disorders and Down syndrome, become more independent and self-sufficient. One of the prime objectives is landing employment. They practice interviewing, necessary work skills and other life skills that are critical, but in such a way as to boost selfesteem, confidence and that feeling of success-at-hand.
As I read more about the organization, I was getting more and more excited. I can tell when I really like an idea because my brain goes WAY faster than my fingers can write and ideas come spewing forth. I was having trouble writing them all down fast enough! How about a team triathlon? We could run part of the way in high heels, swim with water muscles and race tricycles! What about a dance? Maybe a team of ushers for the general sessions could be students from DMF? Now this is something the conference team will really sink their teeth into, I’m sure! There are SO many cool ideas to raise money and have fun at the same time. SCORE!
Hannah brought me more coffee and that’s when I noticed she has Down Syndrome. I looked around for her manager and when I saw her at the register, I asked her if I could chat for a few minutes. I wanted a first-hand account of how they decided to hire Hannah, and actually, what did they have to do to make it happen? Was she a friend of someone? Was she daughter of a good customer? How did they find her? The manager told me the owner was on property and would be glad to talk to me.
The owner came out and introduced himself as Michael. He sat down and he proceeded to open my eyes to a world in which I’d never worked. I’ve never worked closely with someone with any sort of developmental disability, much less hired someone. I asked him to tell me about his experience and I was surprised it was so much like my own work history. You find a job you want, you apply, interview, hopefully get hired, get trained and then do the job. It really is that simple. His revealed his viewpoint during our conversation, captured below:
MKW: “How did you meet Hannah?”
Michael: “Hannah walked into my store one day and asked to fill out an application. I was still a new store at that time and did my own interviewing as I still didn’t have managers yet, so I sat with her and didn’t know what to expect. I’d never hired anyone like her before, but there was just something about that smile and her sincerity that made me take a chance—every new hire is taking a chance. I didn’t know what I was doing, but we figured it out as we went. In the 12 years she’s been here, she’s only missed work twice—once for an appendectomy and once when her cat died. Twelve years. I have students without a disability that can barely go 12 days without calling out!”
MKW: “Is Hannah the only person with a developmental disability you’ve hired? Why or why not?”
Michael: “Since Hannah, I’ve had many others with a disability on staff. Autistic, Down Syndrome, wheelchairs, etc. They don’t call in sick, they take pride in their work, never quarrel with others, and rarely miss a task. The only modification I’ve had to make to their work is to limit what tasks they do and be specific—some are people-people, and others are task-people who do better in the back of the house. But, isn’t that what a good manager does? Manage people and put them where their own individual styles best fit?”
MKW: “Have you had to modify any training or supervision programs?”
Michael: “A bit, yes. We invite parents or caregivers in to Orientation with the new hires. They can help with the required paperwork, and we’ve discovered along the way that if the parent knows what the job is, the employees are better supported at home. They can seek advice or share stories with someone they’ve known and feel comfortable discussing issues. As for supervision, we do nothing differently once an employee is matched to a position. That’s the key to success— make it a good fit for all. Then, all employees are held to the same standards, the same rules and policies, and are paid using the same scale. It’s only right.”
MKW: “What’s your best advice for an employer considering hiring the developmentally disabled?”
Michael: “Do your research. Find an organization in your area that serves the needs of the developmentally disabled and get involved. Your biggest obstacle will be your own preconceived notions and ideas. You will be your own worst enemy—a closed mind is a bad thing to have in any situation, and as an employer, especially in today’s labor market, you don’t need any unnecessary obstacles in your way. My grandmother would say that ‘you’re cutting off your nose to spite your face!’ so why make your life harder than it needs to be? I need good people and will take them wherever you can find them!”
What a refreshing point of view. After Michael left, I found myself looking into my own organization and seeing what jobs I had that didn’t require a special license or certification and wondering if it was the right decision for me. Definitely the start of some conversations with the supervisors. I was actually looking forward to the staff meeting Monday morning and sharing my experience.
I packed up my things, piled my trash on the tray, and stood to go. I heard Hannah’s sweet voice behind me say, “Thank you for coming, and have a nice rest of your day!”