Andrea Pronk figures she has one of the best jobs around.
As director of public relations for Goodwill Industries in Orange County, she helps provides rehabilitation, training, jobs and job-placement services for adolescents and adults with disabilities.
"A typical case is the 45-year-old former aerospace engineer, happily married with grown children, who had a severe heart attack that left him with some brain damage," Pronk said. "He lost his job and his self-esteem. For two years he sat at home, doing nothing.
"Then someone referred him to Goodwill. We evaluated him and placed him in a job as an assembler. I couldn't help but get teary-eyed when, on the day we passed out paychecks, this man asked me, his voice full of wonderment, 'You mean I get paid for this, too?' You could see his self-worth return as he struggled to hide tears of joy. Instead of being a drain on society, he was now contributing to it by once again becoming a taxpayer."
Goodwill is one of a handful of organizations in the county that match the handicapped with prospective employers, an agreement that can be beneficial to both, says Pronk, who has worked for Goodwill five years.
"Disabled workers are very loyal and dependable employees," she said. "They have less burnout, because to them their job--regardless of its level--is their career, and they are dedicated to that job. They try very hard to be punctual and are an inspiration to others.
"Also, there are certain tax benefits for those who hire the handicapped. This doesn't consider the psychological benefits for employers who experience growth . . . helping the less fortunate."
Kevin McGowan, director of manufacturing for Earth Computer Technologies in Fountain Valley, agrees.
"Our firm has hired enclaves of five or more disabled workers," he said. "We received high-quality production from happy workers."
McGowan turned to disabled workers when faced with a labor shortage in the manufacture of IBM-compatible, diskless work stations and network interface cards.
Another firm that's found disabled workers helpful is National Lumber. Howard Chapman, personnel director for the Fountain Valley-based chain of 20 stores in Southern California, has employed disabled workers for more than two years.
"We had trouble finding janitors for our stores," he said. "There was high turnover due to the low pay that such jobs merit. I felt that these were jobs mentally disabled people could perform, so we began using the disabled in our stores."
First, however, Chapman met with store managers and explained what he wanted to do.
"We knew that the program would work only if the managers were enthusiastic," he said. "If a manager showed any hesitation, we eliminated that store from the trial program."
Chapman approached Elwin Industries in Fountain Valley, which, like Goodwill Industries, provides training, supervision and job placement services and regularly appeals to employers to hire their mentally disabled clients.
"I had a meeting with Elwin to explain the position, discuss their clients, and detail the job requirements," he said. "It's very important to be honest about your expectations and voice your feelings about the suitability of each person. Elwin worked with us on a one-to-one basis and guided us in hiring."
Mentally disabled clients now work in eight stores.
"Most start as janitors, without much customer contact," Chapman said. "This is because many feel insecure. But as they become more comfortable, they progress to other jobs."
Take the case of Fred Snowden, a client who works in the Huntington Beach store. Snowden, who has Down's syndrome, "started as a janitor, but now he also works in motor parts, stocking oil, where he is exposed to the public," Chapman said with pride.
Another disabled worker was recently named Employee of the Month in National Lumber's Culver City store.
"I'm so pleased with our workers that I'm slowly adding them to our remaining stores," Chapman said.
Dr. Robert Valentine, owner of the Brookfield Veterinary Clinic in Huntington Beach, was asked to hire a client as a kennel attendant.
"I was very skeptical because this is a job of responsibility," Valentine said. "But I did it on a trial basis with the understanding that if it didn't work out, there would be no hard feelings."
Three years later, Jay Dalton, now 43, who reported to work as Valentine's kennel attendant, today also helps bathe and groom dogs and cats.
"He has his own key," Valentine said. "He arrives a half-hour before everyone else to begin his janitorial duties. I was so impressed that I've hired two other clients. I've had high school and college students work for me who don't do as good a job as Jay does. This is his profession, and he's very dedicated."