Sunday, February 22, 2009

Florida Navy base provides employment for people with disabilities

From the intro to a feature in The Pensacola News Journal in Florida. In the picture, Ivy Marshall, left, and Felecia Pressley serve food at a cafeteria at Pensacola Naval Air Station. Pressley was in special education programs in high school and has worked at the cafeteria since graduating.

Jason Schaeffer knows his way around a kitchen.

Every day, thousands of hungry servicemen and women line up for meals at Pensacola Naval Air Station, and Schaeffer makes sure they don't wait long. He pushes carts of supplies through a maze of people and equipment to keep drink machines topped off and servers fully stocked with trays of food.

It doesn't seem like much, but Schaeffer, 27, is legally blind.

Schaeffer is one of hundreds of people with physical or mental disabilities employed by Gulf Coast Enterprises — part of the vocational services wing of Lakeview Center, a community mental-health center.

GCE turns a profit and operates like any other business, but Richard Gilmartin, vice president of vocational services at Lakeview, said there is a key difference.

"Most employers are looking for a reason to screen people out. We're looking for a reason to screen people in," Gilmartin said.

Schaeffer has worked at the cafeteria at Pensacola Naval Air Station for six years, and he still remembers when he got the job.

"I was very happy because I wanted a job so bad," Schaeffer said. "Some of my friends are partially or legally blind, and they can't get good jobs. That bothers me."

Gilmartin said GCE was formed in 1986, and the company now employs more than 850 people with disabilities in seven states.

Pensacola NAS is the organization's biggest local customer, with about 320 people working food service, custodial and administrative jobs at area bases.

"For those 320 people, the vast majority are termed as having a severe disability" Gilmartin said. "They would be expected to have extreme difficulties working in a traditional workplace."

But through the program, the employees earn good wages and full benefits, including paid vacations, health care and life insurance, Gilmartin said.

"We look at things as though we are running a business with dual bottom lines, the same bottom line as any other business. We have to pay our bills, but the other part is the social issue, which is to help people with severe disabilities be successful in the workplace," he said.

Gary Theriault, GCE contract manager, said helping people with disabilities find meaningful employment also has rewards for the community.

"They were a tax burden, but, today, they're taxpayers like everyone else," Theriault said.

Before coming to GCE, Theriault said he spent five years working with Goodwill Industries International in South Carolina. He said GCE fulfills a mission similar to Goodwill.

"We not only provide an opportunity for employment. We also provide a safe environment for people with disabilities," Theriault said.

"People with a disability have a tendency to get picked on when they go out in the community. Here, they accept each other for who they are. They form bonds that I'm not sure they could form in a regular work environment."

Felecia Pressley, 23, has been working with GCE for five years. She was in special education programs in high school, and GCE was her first job.

She now has two children and lives independently, working as a server and dishwasher at Pensacola NAS.

She said that GCE was more to her than just an employer.

"If you need somebody to talk to, if you need help with something, they can go find it for you," Pressley said.

Eugene Fox, 38, has been working with GCE since recovering from alcohol addiction five years ago. Today he works as a dishwasher in the cafeteria.

"I thank God for GCE being here. Not too many people were offered this opportunity," he said. "I love doing what I do. ... I consider these people my friends. But not only that. They're also my family."