Chris Taverna loved high school – the friends, some of the classes, the sporting events – but missed out on the buzz that many of his classmates experienced during the college search process.
He was thinking about getting a job, instead.
“High school was enough,” he said. “I just wanted to go to work.”
Clarence High School staff helped his classmates plan campus tours and college essays, but they also helped Taverna plug in to a People Inc. Vocational Services program that connects those with learning or developmental disabilities to prospective employers across Western New York.
People Inc. is one of several agencies that handles such work – an important job when you consider the employment statistics for Americans with disabilities:
About one in four people ages 16 to 64 with disabilities are part of the U.S. workforce, compared to three of four in that age range without a disability, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Those with disabilities are almost twice as likely to work part-time compared to those without a disability.
There are silver linings in these numbers.
“Everybody always tells us the people in our program are the most reliable employees that they have,” said Tina Polito, People Inc. director of supportive employment.
Taverna, 29, is a case in point.
He has served meals at a senior living center, washed dishes at Hayes Seafood House and tackled a variety of duties in two grocery stores in his hometown since high school. He’s worked at Dash’s Market, at 4885 Main St. in Clarence, in recent years, helping with inventory and keeping shelves stocked in the dairy and frozen foods sections.
“He knows so many people we call him the mayor of Clarence,” store General Manager Tony Pacella said. “He’s such a nice guy, a hard-worker. I can’t believe how many people he knows when I walk around the store.”
Taverna is one of 450 people with learning or developmental disabilities that People Inc. has helped place in dozens of worksites across the region. They could place dozens more if a greater number of employers reached out for their help.
Families or prospective employers interested in a similar arrangement can call the People Inc. Vocational Services Division at 817-5750 to learn more.
“Coming to work makes me feel good,” said Taverna, who also helps bag groceries and retrieve carts. He has become one of the store stars when it comes to a company-wide policy that directs employees to escort customers to products they’re struggling to find.
Taverna lives with his parents, Anthony, a hair stylist, and Kathy, a manager at Wegmans, which also employs workers from programs similar to the one People Inc. operates.
The Tavernas also have five other children - Steve, Andy, Chrissy, Joanna and Liz – and five granddaughters, all of whom live in Clarence.
Chris Taverna leads an active social life that revolves around his family and co-workers. The money he makes in his part-time job allows him to split Sabres season tickets with friends, and go to the Detroit Car Show and Buffalo Bills Training Camp every year with some of his co-workers.
He’d like to work full-time but that would risk other benefits that will help preserve his lifetime well-being, explained Donna Mahoney, a People Inc. employment specialist who has worked with Taverna to take some of the potential bumpiness out of his work life.
Mahoney has helped Taverna and other individuals look for jobs, fill out applications and practice for interviews. Once hired, she helps make sure employees have the clothes they need, establish good work attendance and hone the skills they will need to succeed.
She visits with Taverna at least twice a month, and also talks regularly with his general manager.
“As long as there’s a need, we’re there,” Mahoney said. “Management changes. There might be a need for new training. Transportation might become difficult. A living situation may change. So we’re always there to make sure this piece of their life stays good.”
People Inc. has placed about 450 people into jobs as part of its vocational program, Polito said. One woman handles labeling in a laboratory. “We have schools, nursing homes, a bookbinding place,” she added. “We’re in retail. There are a lot of entry-level positions when they start out,” but many advance.
About a dozen of Dash’s 600-member workforce – spread out over four locations – are part of the People Inc. or similar program, Pacella said.
“Our store a happier place to be because of people like Chris,” the Clarence GM said, “and having guys like Chris here makes it more of a community store. It’s not a big place where you walk through and don’t talk to anybody because it’s so nuts in there you want to get out. It gets busy in here but people want to stop and chit-chat about how friends and family are doing.”
October is National Disabilities Employment Awareness Month. Learn more here.
“When you’ve got a good employer like Dash’s, you know they’re looking out for Chris, too,” Mahoney said. “If something’s going on – and it doesn’t happen often – they’ll call me. They communicate with us.”
Meanwhile, Taverna leads a more meaningful life – one that rubs off on others.
He offers to fill in when co-workers are sick. He takes pride in the part of the store he is partially responsible for. And he serves as a resource for his latest boss, dairy/frozen manager Matt Gatti.
“He taught me a lot coming from Wegmans, which is a bigger corporate environment,” Gatti said. “This is smaller, tight-knit. He’s taught me the little ins and outs here. He does a very good job. He’s very detail-oriented, very hard working.”
Mahoney, who has worked in her People Inc. job for almost 30 years, was glad to hear the accolades coming from Taverna’s bosses during an interview earlier this week.
“Our hope is that when we place individuals, we’re putting them in a place where they want to stay and be happy working,” she said,
The feedback she gets from other employers, too?
“That these employees are very loyal, reliable more than anything. They do what is asked of them. Many of those in our programs don’t worry so much about having a job to have money. They want to be successful and have that self-worth.”
“They want to be like their brothers or sisters,” added Polito, Mahoney’s boss, and a job can help accomplish that.
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon