A Special Kind of Destiny

— At the Carl's Jr. on Clairemont and Burgener, Michelle is on top of

everything. Conscious of every customer, she double-checks the cleanliness and efficiency of the staff. Although not the manager, the other employees treat her with the respect only a boss can command. Michelle is also mentally disabled.

"She is very alert and aware of what's going on around her," says restaurant manager Linda Hight. "She's really conscientious about her work. As a matter of fact, when one of my new hires does something wrong, she corrects them. She takes it very seriously. If she sees anyone come in [to refill] a cup that they got from the outside, she'll approach them. Where some people might just brush it off and say, 'Oh well, let 'em do it,' she'll at least tell the person in charge."

A graduate of Grossmont High School's special-education program, Michelle, 28, was trained by the East County branch of San Diego's Arc (formerly the Association of Retarded Citizens). She's worked at Carl's Jr. for six years. "Michelle was actually hired at another restaurant in El Cajon. She was hired at first through another program, and then we chose to keep her on. She's learned to do the dining room, the salad bar, a little bit of the kitchen prep, stuff like that. She's been a big help. She's friendly with everyone. The staff all love her."

Hight has managed several Carl's Jr. locations since Michelle was hired and always takes Michelle with her when she moves. "She's kind of attached to me after five years. She comes all the way from El Cajon to Clairemont on the trolley and the bus. It takes two hours each way, and she'll work five days each week, usually for five hours per day."

Michelle's biggest difficulty is accepting her own limitations. "She wants to move up, and she just doesn't have the capability. She wants to be a shift leader, and she doesn't understand that she does not have the ability to do deposits, and I can't leave her accountable for the entire restaurant. She just doesn't understand that. She's learned a little bit of cooking and cashiering, but she's never scheduled for those stations.

"She really tries hard. She wants to try different stuff. She's always willing to help everybody and do everything. She called in sick one day and everyone said, 'Oh no! Michelle's not here!' because she's just such a help. You don't have to tell her what to do -- she just does it. She's also conscientious about what other people are doing -- not that she likes to watch everybody -- she just really cares about her job and the store. When we're up for awards or an inspection, she looks at the store as a whole picture rather than just , 'Oh is my dining room clean?' If the kitchen needs to be mopped, she'll do it rather than some employees who probably don't care and do as little as possible. If I tell her to do something, it'll be done right."

The hard work and tough attitude reflect Michelle's independence. She lives with an uncle in a trailer in El Cajon, where a social worker checks in on her twice a month. "She's very self-sufficient," Hight says. "Sometimes I'll help her balance her checkbook or explain a payment or make a phone call once in a while, but not very often. I know she misses her mother and father -- they had to move to Arizona for a job opportunity, but she wanted to stay here and work at Carl's Jr."

Michelle beams with pride when asked about her work. "I worked at Pizza Hut for a little bit, but I liked it better here at Carl's Jr. I like the people, I like the customers, I like the service. I try to push myself very hard in everything I do." She is seldom bored on the long ride to work. "Actually, I have my own comic strips. I'll work on that. I enjoy doing a lot of things. In my spare time I go to church and do a lot of errands -- but I really like my cartoons."

The highlight of Michelle's career came in March of 1999 when she met Carl's Jr. founder, Carl Karcher, and delivered a speech in front of 300 people. As Hight recalls, it was at the Hyatt Hotel on Mission Bay, but Michelle corrects her: "It was at the Hilton Hotel on Mission Bay. For me, that was a dream come true. I did write out a speech, and I presented him with an award on behalf of people with disabilities. I got a standing ovation. I got hugs from people I didn't even know. I was very honored to do something like that.

"I thank Linda Hight for training me very well. If it wasn't for her, I don't know where I'd be today. She's one of my favorite bosses that I've ever had. I'm looking forward to going farther with my skills."

At the Vons market in Mission Hills, Mikey, 28, bags groceries two hours a day, four days a week. Because of his Down's syndrome, Mikey does not communicate as clearly as Michelle, but he works just as hard. Store manager Robert Goulding doesn't know where Mikey was trained. "He's worked here for four years. He was here when I got here." (Goulding recently transferred from another store). "I know that there's an agency involved in it, and he does have a job coach, but he's far enough along in his career that she doesn't actually come in unless we call her in and request her.

"He's worked out really well. His attitude is good as long as he stays focused. He's always willing to turn around and readjust his focus. Every day he interacts with customers -- in fact, he just received a letter not too long ago from a customer. She was very impressed with Mikey."

Mikey is well-liked by the staff, and they treat him like a brother. "Everybody likes him. Our store is like a family and he's just part of our family. He does everything a normal courtesy clerk would do. He bags groceries, interacts with customers. He does a lot of dusting and cleaning around the store. We like to keep him involved and interacting with the customers -- either up front or on the sales floor. He's not shy at all. He loves football. He's got season tickets for the Chargers. He's a big sports fan; he can tell you who won every game every week."

Mikey shows no shyness when interviewed, but his answers are short and his affect is flat.

How long have you worked here at Vons?

"About three years -- four."

Did you go to school before you came here?

"Yeah."

Were you involved at all with Arc of San Diego?

"Yeah."

Did they train you for this job?

"Yeah. Buffy."

Is she your trainer?

"Yeah."

Can you tell me about your job?

"I like it here. I like the customers. Nice work here."

What do you like about working here?

"Being a bagger. Helping dust. Helping customers."

Can you tell me a little bit about sports and who you like?

"The Chargers lost to Denver."

Do you go to all the games?

"Yeah. But now the tickets are going up."

What do you think about the Rams this year?

"The Rams -- don't like 'em." He shakes his head.

Are people nice to you here?

"Yeah."

Mikey lives in National City with his grandparents. Until recently, he lived downtown in Little Italy.

Kathleen Swett, 45, is the director of food services for Children's Hospital. She's hired mentally disabled workers since 1989. "Our people were not doing a good job keeping the cafeteria clean. I heard about the Arc program, and from a purely business perspective it seemed to be a win-win situation. I could take labor dollars and convert them into this program. Here you've got a group of people who take tremendous pride in what they do. They come rain or shine. They don't call in sick [when they're not], they do a great job, with smiles on their faces -- they're great. They've become part of our family, not only in the department here, but in the hospital."

David, 39, was not born mentally disabled. He originally came to Children's Hospital as a patient with measles. Persistent high fevers damaged his brain, diminishing his mental capacity. "I was a patient here a long time ago -- I don't know when I started. I think I was a teenager. I enjoy working here. I've probably worked here for about 15 years. They all like me here, and I'm treated well." David now works in the hospital cafeteria.

"The people are real nice. I also work part time at North Shores Arc. They train you to work out in the community. When you work out in the community, you get a bigger paycheck. I live not too far from Children's Hospital and North Shores-- I live with my mom and dad. I work from 9:00 to 2:30, Monday through Friday."

Liz Nelson, a job coach, has worked for the San Diego Arc at Children's Hospital since January. "I oversee and assist any way I can. I'm here to help and support the workers." Nelson acts like a den mother to the other Arc "clients" working in the cafeteria. Alison and Loretta, curious about the interview, walk over and join Nelson.

"What's going on?" Alison asks. When Nelson explains there will be a story about them, Alison enthusiastically answers questions. "This is a wonderful company to work for. I've worked here since August of '99. The best thing about working here is the free lunch! I also like the color scheme of the tables and stuff. It's probably the colors I'd want to decorate my room. I'm 21 years old. I live in La Mesa with my stepdad, my mom, and my half-brother." Alison is quick to praise Nelson: "She's a better supervisor than our other one ever was." Nelson later adds that Alison is the president of a group called the Independent Club.

Her companion, Loretta, 32, is more reserved. "I've worked here for a long time -- about a year. They rotate [the tasks] every week. I was trained at North Shores. I like to make sure everything is clean." She boasts about correcting another worker's error. "Just a minute ago I had to go change what he did. I had to make sure everything was in order. One thing about this job...I can make more money and do anything I gotta do."

When we're alone, Nelson brags about the workers. "I really love this group. I like working with them." She talks about her studies at Grossmont College. "I'm in the disabled-services management program. I'm trying to get ahold of the language part and address them as 'people-first' rather than 'disability-first.' The whole movement is toward getting rid of the stereotypes and stigmas...to get people normalized rather than different.

"Disability can affect any one of us at any time in our lives. We always think of disabled people as people with congenital defects, who from birth on have had these things, but my brother is a quadriplegic as a result of an accident, so he's in the category of disabled now -- severely. My sister, also, as a result of diabetes, has become disabled. That's what sparked my interest in this whole field, because I need to take care of my family now. I'm in the position with all the dynamics that affect you when you are dealing with that. That's opened up my eyes for the first time in my life towards these things."

After finishing at Grossmont, Nelson plans to pursue gerontology (the study of aging). "One in five people have a disability of some sort. We're all interconnected. It broadens our acceptance of the elderly when we embrace, as a society, what disability is.

"The entire disabled population is taking charge of themselves and their identity. They're moving forward with their own strength and power. There's quite a few people to address and deal with. If you want to talk about prejudice toward minorities, you'll see it toward them more than any other group. They've endured the same struggle and are heading toward equality -- to be accepted."

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