Donald Blazek had spent most of his adult life in a sheltered workshop doing production duties. In late 2013, Donald firmly told his Personal Agent (PA) at his brokerage, "I want to work in the community."
His PA from Community Pathways referred Donald to the central Portland Vocational Rehabilitation, (VR) office, which hired Dirkse Counseling & Consulting to do job development.
Job developer Glenn Bishop said he was initially concerned about finding a right job fit for Donald, who experiences an intellectual disability as well as issues with anxiety.
"We got paperwork that Donald was working at 34 percent productivity at the workshop," Glenn said. "The first time I met him, he was withdrawn and quiet."
Donald, 27, lives in the Pearl District in northwest Portland and expressed a desire to work somewhere close, so Glenn started his search there. Glenn wanted to find an employer who would be supportive and flexible.
He found that employer in store manager Jim LaBianco. Donald began working as a courtesy clerk at Safeway at 13th and Lovejoy in Feb. 2014.
A significant amount of job coaching was initially needed to teach Donald how to correctly and efficiently bag groceries and to engage the customers and offer assistance. The job is technically a "job carve," as some of the regular courtesy clerk duties are not part of Donald's job.
When Donald was hired, he had concerns about working with customers, and some of his duties. Glenn helped him to work through some of these issues, and his coworkers and manager also supported him.
For instance, Donald would sometimes get anxious if a customer stopped to ask him a question while he was on his way to perform another task. Over time, Donald has learned that he can help a customer and still perform his other duties.
"Sometimes I would get anxious and upset," Donald said. "Glenn taught me I can take a breath and if I feel really anxious, I go outside to collect carts, get fresh air."
Store manager Jim LaBianco said he is pleased with Donald's work.
"It's a two-fold benefit," he said. "One, customers see we are giving all people opportunities. It's diversity, and customers like that. Two, he is a great employee and he gets the job done."
LaBianco, a military veteran who has worked for Safeway for 24 years, said he believes strongly in giving people opportunities to work and to prove themselves.
"It's a business advantage because people like to see other people in their community being given a fair shake," he said. "But this isn't charity. Donald has a regular job and we work him like anyone else."
LaBianco also said he values Donald's dependability and enthusiasm for his job.
"He has not missed a single day or called in sick since he started, which I can't say for many employees," LaBianco said. "He has a special skill set, and if anyone fails to see that, that's on them. He's 100 percent a member of my team."
Donald's attendance record wasn't 100 percent at the sheltered workshop. Donald said he frequently called in sick, or came in late, because he was unhappy.
"I was late there and would just sleep in. I didn't do the work," Donald said, referring to his former "34 percent productivity rate" at the workshop.
Donald said he misses his friends at the workshop, but he doesn't regret his decision to leave. When asked about his favorite part of his job, he smiles and rubs his two fingers together to signal "money."
He said he continues to encourage his friends who have remained at the workshop to also consider community integrated employment.
"I left, and I never looked back," Donald said, looking up for the first time during the interview. "I will never go back there."
Donald said his friends with intellectual and developmental disabilities are fearful to leave their workshops. Change can be frightening for anyone. Even though Donald had multiple barriers, his personal agent and his VR counselor supported his decision and that made a big difference.
Donald said he has a message for the community:
"Hire people with disabilities; hire people like me," he said. "We need to work."
You can view a slideshow of Donald working at Safeway.