GCIT, GCC programs get young people with disabilities out into the job market

Published: Monday, October 17, 2011, 4:00 AM
By Jessica Driscoll/ Gloucester County Times

Retail employment opportunities for young people with disabilities abound at the campuses of two county schools — the Gloucester County Institute of Technology and Gloucester County College.

At GCIT, students 18 to 21 involved in the Bankbridge Career Center program can get hands-on experience with handling money and working a register,preparing food safely and taking inventory of merchandise at the Career Center Cafe— a convenience store serving GCIT students and staff throughout the school day.

Staff photos by Tim Hawk Amber Johnson, of Clayton, makes a hoagie at the Career Center Café at the Gloucester County Institute of Technology.

“We started seven years ago, and the whole program was Mr. (Fred) Keating’s idea,” said Tom Byrne, program manager for the Bankbridge Career Center. “Our 18- to 21-year-old population needed a way to learn responsibility, multitasking and money handling, and the Career Center Cafe provides that experience.” Garrison Architects of Marlton designed the space.

The program has between 30 and 42 young adults enrolled in any given year and about five students work during each shift at the Cafe.

“If they’re really doing well, we graduate them when they’re 20,” said Byrne. “A job coach works with all the kids we have, and they work one day per week at outside unpaid internships at Chick-fil-A, the Early Childhood Education Center at GCC, the Roadrunner Cafe at GCC, Walmart, Rastelli’s, Liscio’s Italian Bakery and Marshalls. Through their rotations at the Cafe and through the internships, they learn many different skills which is important, because most retail operations want a kid who can multitask.”

Byrne said the program’s goal is to get students out into the job market as soon as possible. Their time at the Career Center Cafe is unpaid, but it counts as valuable job experience after graduation.

The Career Center Cafe is open from the time GCIT opens for staff and students until 2 p.m. The store then closes but opens again for night school. Students working night shifts at the Cafe are paid.

“I make sandwiches and hot dogs, make coffee, stock shelves, different things every day,” said Cafe employee Amber Johnson, of Clayton. “I’ve been working here for three years and I like learning everything. I want to work in retail.”

Johnson said she’s also done internships with ECEC, the Roadrunner Cafe and Liscio’s bakery.

“I liked the retail work best,” said Johnson. “This program is nice because it gives everybody a chance to do different things and get job training for when they go out in the world.”

Byrne said the teachers and students at GCIT are very supportive of the Cafe, and the young adults working there get a good sense of what it’s like to be employed in a regular store.

Mark Pontelandolfo, of Gibbstown, works the register at the Career Center Café at GCIT.

“They learn responsibility, especially when they work on the registers,” said Byrne. “They can get an idea of what mistakes they’ve made and what we need to concentrate on. And during their internships, they get work evaluations, too, which are very helpful. It’s very rewarding to have these students come back three or four years later to tell us how they’re doing and where they’re working now. It lets you know you’re doing the right thing.”

Down the road at GCC’s campus, in the College Center, the Roadrunner Cafe servesas an extension of the Career Center Cafe. Young adults employed at the Roadrunner Cafe, however, are not (or no longer) Bankbridge students. They are paid employees who go through a regular interview process.

Joanie DePaul, manager of the Roadrunner Cafe, said the store is in its third year on campus.

“It gives our employees the self-confidence that some of them still lack and an important sense of independence because they’re earning their own income,” said DePaul. “They also have the opportunity to attend classes here at GCC because we’ll work around their schedules.”

DePaul explained that, even though the Roadrunner Cafe is an operational store where employees must meet all the standards of a normal retail operation, it is still the “safe haven” they need.

“As instructors, we give them that sense of security,” said DePaul, who works with Assistant Manager Cara Foy to teach employees the skills they need.

The Roadrunner Cafe is open from 7 a.m. to 6:15 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Friday. DePaul and Foy said the store stays pretty consistently busy as students and staff stop by for coffee or a quick lunch.

“The ultimate goal is to get these young adults independent employment,” said Ron Rutter, principal of the Bankbridge Regional School and Career Center. “This is a great place for resume building and developing employability skills.”

“They can go on to work at 7-Eleven, Heritage’s, Wawa, Kohl’s, Home Depot and more,” said DePaul. “And those who have come through this store and moved on like to come back and tell us they’re doing well.”

DePaul said most of her employees can do it all, including register work, stocking, checking in orders, filling coffee and cold beverages and making fresh food.

Rutter said, when these employees start, they often have that deer-in-the-headlights look, but by the end of the year they’re much more comfortable in their employment and social skills

.“Most of them have really blossomed,” said DePaul. “Some came in here painfully shy or unable to make eye contact, but now you’d never know they have any type of disability. They get to know the customers and interact with them well.”

Megan Graham, of Washington Township, puts hoagies out at the Road Runner Café at Gloucester County College.

“They’ve progressed beyond what we could ever expect,” said Foy. “One young man worked here for two years and, by the end of his second year, he saw an open maintenance position here at GCC and applied for it on his own. Now he’s working for GCC which is wonderful.” Roadrunner Cafe employee Megan Graham said she started working about a year ago. “I mostly do food preparation, but I do other stuff, too,” said Graham, of Washington Township. “I like being with my instructors and interacting with people when they come in and order. I go to school here at GCC, too, which is nice. Eventually, I probably want to work at a clothing store, and this job has helped me communicate better and learn to talk to more people.” Employee Daniel McGuire, also of Washington Township, said he’s pretty pleased with the job, as well. “I get good payment and it helps me manage responsibility so I can get ready for the real world,” said McGuire. “I do the register, dish-washing, coffee-making, I do it all. I think the most important thing I’ve learned, though, is more responsibility.”

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