Work and Freedom

Now in its 10th year, the Supported Employment Program gives jobs to the disabled

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Don Nicholson usually spends his days in the McElroy Commons cafeteria peeling as many as 50 pounds of carrots and chopping caseloads of broccoli and cauliflower. But they are worthwhile days for Nicholson, who is developmentally disabled and blind, and relies on his sense of touch to carve vegetables and place them properly in their crates.

Nicholson is one of 20 current participants in the Supported Employment Program, sponsored by the School of Education, the Campus School, Human Resources and Dining Services. Now in its 10th year, the state-funded program offers jobs and employment training to developmentally disabled adults from the Boston area, who are referred by the state Department of Mental Retardation and the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission. Participants work 25-30 hours per week in campus cafeterias, at the bookstore and on groundskeeping crews, earning from $400 to $800 per month.

Tom Cerulli, Dining Services production manager (far right), with Supported Employment Program workers (from left): Gail Goguen, Addam Smith, Laura Marcoux, Kevin Slattery, Paul Hunte, Don Nicholson and Leslie Randall. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Participants and their campus co-workers and supervisors say the program is a broadening experience with a host of long-lasting benefits.

"The work needs to be done and here are a bunch of people who want to work," said program coordinator Emily Jackson, a supervisor at the Campus School. "Individuals with disabilities who are employed are setting their own personal goals and taking action to reach them. They are contributing members of their communities and are less reliant on public assistance. They want to decide to go to the movies, or buy a VCR, or take aerobics. Because they have jobs, they can make these choices."

McElroy cafeteria worker Leslie Randall, a 10-year veteran of the program, said she enjoys the interaction with students that comes with her job - so much so, she acknowledged with a laugh, that she sometimes has to remind herself to stop chatting and get back to work. She also enjoys her earnings, which she said go in the bank "to pay the bills," and provide spending money for jewelry and an upcoming family vacation to Florida.

The term "developmental disability" is broad, said Jackson, and is used to refer to various forms of retardation that are congenital, such as Downs syndrome, or that result from injuries during development, like a lack of oxygen at birth. Many developmentally disabled adults are capable of holding jobs, she said, but tend to find few opportunities for suitable employment.

Jackson said jobs are assigned based on the workers' capabilities and the needs of the particular workplace. For example, in the bookstore a worker might be assigned to place stickers on used books or straighten shelves; or, in the cafeteria, help set up and break down the salad bar, bus tables, and - like Nicholson - help peel vegetables.

"We stress looking at ability, not disability, and what the person needs to be successful," said Jackson.

A large measure of the program's success is due to the helpful cooperation of co-workers and supervisors, said Campus School Senior Job Coach Mary Brown, who offer camaraderie and assistance where necessary.

"The people who work for Dining Services are just great," said Brown. "They're friends to us. Without their attention and help, the program wouldn't succeed."

Thomas Cerulli, the production manager in the McElroy kitchen, praised the performance of SEP workers he has supervised. "They do an excellent job," he said. "They provide a good service and are very dependable. They're nice people to work with."

Even with such support, Jackson said, sometimes a worker may find a job too difficult or unsatisfying. But these experiences offer opportunities for growth, she said, like learning the virtues of perseverance. Jackson noted one employee who hopes to switch to a slower-paced job once her assignment in the McElroy cafeteria bakery is completed at the end of the academic year. In the meantime, she is showing admirable "stick-to-it-iveness," Jackson said, while coming to realize what she wants - and doesn't want - in a job.

"The program challenges workers, encouraging them to take risks and to deal with the frustrations we all have in life," said Jackson. "Employment really is the key to freedom in our lives."

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