Puzzle Pieces Executive Director Amanda Owen announced a new arm to the nonprofit in September that will focus on connecting people with intellectual disabilities with local business and industry for employment placement.
With five placements in local businesses already made, Employment Opportunities has gained considerable traction according to Owen, who hopes to have 20 people placed by the end of 2019.
One of those placements is Matt Cook, 20, who wanted to find a job that involved working in a kitchen. His dream was to make cornbread and biscuits at Cracker Barrel. Owen asked friend and Lure Seafood and Grille owner Ben Skiadas if her client with Down Syndrome could tour his kitchen. What started out as a simple kitchen walkthrough, evolved into the first placement for Employment Opportunities in December.
Skiadas, who had worked with individuals with special needs before, said it was easy to jump on board with Employment Opportunities because of the support structure Owen and her team provide.
“I had a lot of preface to Matt’s strengths and weaknesses and how to deal with challenges,” Skiadas said. “I wish I could have that for all of my employees.”
Skiadas said during the first meeting he gave Cook a hat and welcomed him to Lure.
“From day one, Cracker Barrel was in the rear view. He wants to be here,” Skiadas said. “He has taken complete ownership of his job. He’s part of the team, not someone with disabilities that works here.”
According to Owen, Cook’s motivation for employment stems from wanting to be a part of a team and not a paycheck — although Cook was so excited after his first payday that he ordered $800 worth of items from Amazon, which his mother later canceled.
When Cook shows up to work his 12 hours per week, he follows a checklist provided by Employment Opportunities. His tasks focus on repetitive routines like taking out the trash and relining the cans, laying out mats on the floor and setting up the kitchen sanitation stations.
Skiadas said the checklist training system has been so effective he has now adopted a version for all new entry-level employees. And Skiadas said this isn’t the only change he has seen since hiring Cook.
“The way that people treat their co-workers has changed. There has been more of a tone of respect and professionalism,” Skiadas said. “Managers have more patience with Matt than other entry-level employees, which has been a good learning moment. It has added a few hours to my payroll, but it’s worth the money I put in.”
According to Owen, individuals with special needs can make great employees because they are committed to their jobs.
“This may be a part-time job, but for Matt, this is his career,” Owen said. “We have a population that is eager to work, wants to be a part of a team, can pass a drug test, and is looking for longevity.”
Through her work with Puzzle Pieces, Owen sees many students with intellectual disabilities want to work after graduating high school. And although she says Owensboro has programs like Puzzle Pieces, Wendell Foster and Dream Riders of Kentucky to support these graduates with programming, it is the goal of Employment Opportunities to place them in a job if that is what they desire.
“They should have a different avenue, a buffet of choices,” Owen said.
Owen hired Blair Neighbors, a special education teacher, as director of Employment Opportunities in late December. Together Owen and Neighbors are moving forward with placements for anyone with intellectual disabilities, not just clients of Puzzle Pieces. A major component of that is the OBKY Coalition for Workforce Diversity, which is a networking opportunity for Employment Opportunities and local business owners and human resource representatives.
Skiadas, who has now joined the Coalition, said the amount of resources in the room at the last meeting should put any business owner at ease if considering hiring someone with special needs. Experts in the fields of safety, ADA compliance, taxes and legal issues, retirement and investment planning are all working together to put together the best plan in providing employment to diverse populations, Skiadas said.
“There can be a feeling of unknown or it can be scary,” Skiadas said of other businesses potentially hiring employees with intellectual disabilities. “But this community has a different approach and mentality to accept people with special needs as normal, viable members of society.”
As a fundraiser for Puzzle Pieces, who is having their annual Lip Sync Battle on Saturday, Lure Seafood and Grille will be giving a portion of the day’s sales. In addition, Skiadas said Saturday’s menu will feature Matt’s Special — a mushroom stuffed chicken breast over a mushroom cream sauce pasta. For the first time since working at Lure, Cook will be prepping food, which will be used to create the special named in his honor. Skiadas said half of the sales of that dish will be donated to Puzzle Pieces. Skiadas and Owen both hope that people will choose to eat at Lure before the event, not only because the restaurant is disability-friendly, but also to enjoy Cook’s hard work.
“Matt will be at the Lip Sync Battle. Wouldn’t it be cool if people ate his dish and then saw him at the convention center and told him how much they enjoyed his food?” Owen said.
All tables for the Lip Sync Battle have sold out, but $30 general admission tickets are available, which give guests standing room only. So far over 1,300 tickets have been sold, with maximum sales capped at 1,400.