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Article of Interest - Community Living

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Serving Up Skills
Mary Radigan, The Grand Rapids Press, July 17, 2005
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Marcos Gomez made a lasting impression when he walked into Chicago's Deep Dish 'n Dogs restaurant to look for work.

The 21-year-old from Ada had just graduated from Goodwill Industries' Hospitality Food Service program that offers job training to people with disabilities or other barriers to employment.

He showed up ready for work and a paycheck. The enthusiasm showed.

"I could recognize immediately he would fit into this group," said Joseff VanHorn, general manager of the restaurant next to Celebration Cinema theater. "I liked his personality, and he was easy going and eager to learn."

A year after he was hired, Gomez has earned the respect of the restaurant's 30 employees and managers with his attitude, commitment and job performance.

"I didn't know anyone, but I really wanted to work here," said Gomez, who has a mild form of autism and takes a bus or gets a ride to work.

"I do a little bit of everything and work about 30 hours a week, and I love my job and the people very much," he said. "I think of them as another family."

That's just what Rock Dandeneau wants to hear.

As director of the new Goodwill Industries program, the former corporate chef for Herman Miller Inc. has been a passionate advocate for the training he developed and first offered in September 2003 with the help of a federal Projects With Industry grant.

"Our participants come from all walks of life, and we get referrals from job displacement agencies, Michigan Rehabilitation Services and Community Mental Health," he said.

It is his autistic son who motivates Dandeneau, 35.

"I was driven to Goodwill because I see my child in the future, and I see how Goodwill can change the future," he said.

So does Gomez's father, Marcos Gomez Jr.

He said his son went to special-education schools as a child, but graduated from Creston High School, where he was a member of the track team and participated in cross-country.

"Marcos is a hard worker, and I'm very proud of him," Gomez said. "Goodwill has done a good job, and I just wish (the business world) would give more people like this a chance, because they want to work."

Since the program began, 60 graduates landed jobs at businesses such as Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, Chicago Deep Dish, Wendy's, the Hilton Hotel and Charley's Crab.

In all, 90 disadvantaged workers, ages 17 to 60, enrolled in the intensive six-week "hands-on" course, which covers everything from food safety and sanitation to teamwork, meal preparation and customer service.

Participants earn minimum wage, $5.15 an hour, and, on completion of the program, get help from Goodwill's job-placement specialists on resumes, job applications and interviews.

Goodwill counselors stick with a new hire for 90 days to make sure they get started on the right foot, then on a more limited basis for a year and beyond, if necessary.

An advisory council from the hospitality industry helps with curriculum, training advice and job leads, which is an invaluable resource, Dandeneau said.

The program, only able to handle 10 to 12 participants each session, has a waiting list, said the program's assistant manager and chef, Jeff Young.

The right attitude

On this day, the 28-year-old Young was busy helping a participant build a spinach salad with mangos, strawberries and grapes.

They topped the dish with toasted almonds, then carefully covered their creation for storage in the refrigerator.

Attention to detail is a cardinal rule.

"It has been so rewarding to see this make a difference to these individuals and their lives," Young said. "Beyond the food-service training, the foundation of this program is all about having the proper attitude, and respect for each other and the customer."

The program operates from the top floor of Ferguson Apartments at 72 Sheldon Blvd. NE, a 101-unit complex managed by Dwelling Place Inc. for those with disabilities. The former hospital's cafeteria and kitchen are perfect places for training.

Residents get three meals a day, including made-from-scratch desserts, prepared by students.

Ferguson Terrace also is open to the public for lunch Monday through Friday.

"We create our own recipes and menus and everything is made fresh," Dandeneau said. "When graduates leave this program for a job, they usually are ahead of the game, with more knowledge and skills -- especially in sanitation."

If they are not quite ready, Dandeneau offers two to six months of extended training, and they stay on Goodwill's payroll during that time.

Those participants can continue to work at Ferguson Apartments, at Goodwill's coffee and lunch bars in its stores or at school-lunch programs.

They also can work in Goodwill's new catering service that grew out of the hospitality program.

"I could see that Goodwill and the other (social services) agencies needed some catering service at a lower cost than they could get from private caterers," Dandeneau said. So, "we started with Community Mental Health (Department), and it just spread by word of mouth."

Dandeneau does little advertising for the catering service, but revenues have grown to more than $7,000 a month.

The money is plowed right back into the food-service program, once expenses are paid.

Earlier this month, Dandeneau was working with some graduates to prepare a cafeteria for Cascade Engineering, 3400 Innovation Court SE.

The plastic-parts manufacturer recently moved into a new building, complete with a kitchen and lunch room, and asked Goodwill to bid on food service.

The company's experience with Goodwill's food service helped seal the deal. It also opened the door for Dandeneau to use Cascade Engineering's kitchen for catered events.

Last summer, he and his crew catered a breakfast and lunch when the company hosted U.S. Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans and other dignitaries for the first meeting of the new U.S. Manufacturing Council.

Fred Keller, Cascade Engineering's chief executive, was appointed to the council and made a point to tell guests their meals were prepared by Goodwill.

"We wanted to get into a corporate environment, and this was a very unique way for us to show we can handle an elegant event," Dandeneau said.

"There was no kitchen in Cascade's old building, and we had a week-and-a-half to throw it together, using Ferguson's facility."

Bob Peabody, senior supply chain manager for Cascade Engineering, helped launch Goodwill's food service program.

Over the past four years, the company employed 1,200 Goodwill clients through assembly contracts at Goodwill's plant in Grandville, he said.

"We didn't want to run (the cafe) ourselves, and we looked at Goodwill as a good fit," he said.

Payoff is paycheck

John Wells, 21, is one of the four or five graduates who will work at Cascade Engineering for extended job training.

Dandeneau said the young man's work ethic and dedication make him the kind of employee Goodwill wants to showcase.

"I want to keep him a little longer on a job-training site so that he can get a better job to suit his needs," he added.

A graduate of Union High School, Wells has a mild form of autism. He tried classes at Grand Rapids Community College, but they were not a good fit. His family was referred to the Goodwill program, which made a huge difference, relatives said.

Now described as one of the program's best students, Wells graduated with a perfect attendance record and a top 95 percent score in sanitation procedures. He is thrilled to be earning his first real paycheck.

"This was all brand new for me," he said. "I liked learning about all the different areas and working with people."

He will work as a dish washer and food preparer, taking a city bus back and forth from his Grand Rapids home five days a week. He has a resume and is set to step into a potential employer's office for an interview.

"This has made John much more aware of what he can do, rather than what he can't do," said his father, Jeff Wells. "He was teased a lot as a kid, and I see John's self-esteem rising as he realizes he has a lot of attributes to offer a company."


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