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School to Work: Restaurant finds a role for special ed students

By Sarah L. Smith
Coastal Observer

In a hallway behind the hustle and bustle of the Eggs Up Grill kitchen, Katherine Hartzler plucks shiny silverware out of a bin.

Her feet, clad in hot pink Converse tennis shoes, don’t move as she reaches across the corner table for a knife, then a fork and, finally, a spoon.

Carefully adjusting them on the middle of the white paper napkin, Hartzler casts a critical eye over her creation.

Satisfied, she rolls up the silverware, slips it into a wax paper holder and sets it aside.

Hartzler, 22, along with Jordan Eaddy, 19, found part-time employment at Eggs Up, a breakfast restaurant in Litchfield.

“It gives them a sense of purpose,” said Chris Skodras, the restaurant owner.

But other current and former special education students haven’t been so lucky.

Mary Tester, a special education teacher at Waccamaw High School, is reaching out to local employers to see if they are interested in hiring her students because traditional programs and services are no longer available after students turn 22.

At that age, they leave school and can ask the state Department of Disabilities and Special Needs to provide job counseling, in home support, work activity centers or day programming.

“Because of budget cuts we don’t have services for these young people to step into when they leave the school system,” said Lois Park Mole, director of government and community relations at the state Department of Disabilities and Special Needs.

While the economic downturn has made it harder to find jobs in Georgetown County, these cuts, combined with high unemployment, have left 93 developmentally-challenged people in the county without services.

In the state, about 1,200 are on a waiting list, according to Mole.

Eric Berry, a Waccamaw High School graduate, is one of the 93 waiting for services.

After he turned 22 in December 2008, Berry left the school hoping to find a job, but he’s had no success, Tester said.

A poet with a philosophical streak, Berry may be physically confined to a wheelchair, but his mind and positive attitude have no boundaries.

“That’s why it’s so sad. He’s so verbal and so social,” Tester said. “When I first started teaching this we just assumed the kids could get into this program.”

To practice and show off their skills, Tester takes her students to restaurants such as Eggs Up and Pastaria 811, or to the Lakes of Litchfield.

When they’re finished eating, students bus and clean off their tables.

On other outings, they’ll practice house cleaning skills at Teach My People, a nonprofit for at-risk children, but back at school they’ll work on doing laundry. That’s why Tester’s next goal is to get students introduced to hotel laundry services, an ideal job for students who have a hard time being in public places.

These are skills students practice every week, but if they’re sitting at home, unable to work, they can lose the strides they made at school, Mole said.

“It is also very important for anybody, whether you have a disability or not, to have some activity you can wake up to every day that allows you to earn some money,” she said.

That’s why it is frustrating for her to have so many people waiting for job counseling and placement. But until the state legislature can provide more money for the agency to hire more employees, the waiting list will continue to grow.

“Right now we’re just hoping we don’t have any more cuts,” Mole said. “We don’t want to have to kick anyone out of the service especially when they don’t have an employment opportunity for them to walk into.”

Elizabeth Krauss, executive director of Georgetown County Board of Disabilities and Special Needs, described the county situation as heartbreaking.

“We should be able to serve people off the waiting list,” she said. “There are lots of elderly parents and grandparents that need services.”

JOY School, a summer program for adults and children with disabilities, provides a break for some families, but like everything else it has lost revenue, Krauss said.

So Tester is thrilled Hartzler and Eaddy have a home at Eggs Up. It gives her student and former student a place to belong.

Sherry Stoneking, a supervisor at the restaurant, said she’s seen how the work gives Hartzler and Eaddy fulfilment.

“Jordan, more than anybody, has taken such a pride in this restaurant,” she said.

Five days a week, with his red backpack slung on his shoulders, Eaddy gets off the special education bus and strides into Eggs Up.

“He has great confidence when he walks through the door,” Stoneking said.

He’ll work for about an hour each day, sometimes folding T-shirts or take-out menus. Most days he rolls silverware.

Other Eggs Up workers interact with him occasionally, but unless Stoneking gives him another task, Eaddy works independently.

“For them it’s not about the money,” Skodras said.

That’s why it’s a win-win situation for employers to hire people with special needs, Mole said.

They work hard and are dedicated to their companies; but, the best part about having them work at the restaurant is their attitudes, Skodras said. If he’s having a bad day, all he has to do is go and talk to them, and they make it better.

While Eggs Up also employs Steven Minot, another adult with special needs, Skodras said his business doesn’t have room for more employees like Hartzler and Eaddy unless they move on to another position.

As a result, he is encouraging other businesses to consider hiring people with special needs.

“They always brighten your day,” he said. “People enjoy having them around.”

Businesses interested in working with a student from Tester’s class can contact the high school at 237-9899.

They can also get more information from the state Department of Disabilities and Special Needs by calling 803-898-9743 and requesting a Smart Moves booklet.

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