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Empowering Employees with Disabilities

  • June Soh

Lifelong intellectual disabilities often can hinder a person's ability to acquire skills or get a job. The people who run the Wildflour catering company near Washington, D.C. know that, so they have made a special effort to hire people with disabilities. The company gives its employees marketable skills, and sends them home with more than just a paycheck.

Philippe Keefe is proud of himself for being able to do many things. He says, “I cut red potatoes, I do some cilantro, I peel carrots, I grate carrots, I cut peppers,-- "

And the list goes on! Kerry O’Brien loves to cook. She says, “It is like a dream job. I love to be a chef one day, to be a proud daughter of my parents, of course.”

O'Brien and Keefe work at Wildflour, a café and catering business in Chantilly, Virginia, where more than half of the 70 employees have intellectual disabilities. The non-profit corporation trains them to work in kitchens and restaurants.

Alberto Sangiorgio, Wildflour's general manager, says, “They work around the tables two to three months for each procedure, they do dishwashing, they do cutting things, they do many, many things. At the end of the process, it takes four to five years to do that, they are capable to work at any restaurants, any place like everybody else.”

The employees, who range in age from 22-60, make minimum wage - $7.50 an hour, and Wildflour offers them time off for illness and vacation.

Paul Miller, who has been a chef here for six years, says “They love coming to work. They love all their co-workers and they take to tasks like you won’t believe. It takes a while but after a while they go right to it. It is very rewarding for me.”

Fernanda Rodriguez, who trains them to pack biscuits, agrees. She says, “I think that they teach me more than I teach them. They are very positive, they are very affectionate. They are happy all the time.”

Veronique Keefe sees positive changes in her son, Philippe. She says, “He is much calmer, he is happy, he is energetic. He is happy with other people working there. So socially it is good for him to be here."

Richard Harrison is a regular at Wildflour café. He says the food is wonderful, but that's not the only reason he comes here.

“I appreciate the approach that the restaurant has taken and hiring those people," he said. "My experience with them is a great experience."

Chopping and packing skills aside, the job gives the employees something perhaps more valuable - a sense of self-esteem. John Stephens, who has Down syndrome, has worked at Wildflour since 2008.

He says, “This job is the key to unlocking all kinds of dreams not just to be in culinary but to be anything they want to be. This place has given me everything they can to make sure I have a steady life.”

Stephens says he wants to be an actor. And once an opportunity arises, he is confident he can act as a chef, as well.
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