SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
During these first few weeks of the new year, we're meeting a series of people who are trying to pursue their American dream through the most basic part of life - food. Today, two young women who've struggled to leave their parents' home, find work, build a life of their own to be independent. They have developmental disabilities. And for them, as for many people with autism or cerebral palsy, this step into adulthood can be a monumental challenge. NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee says that working in the food service industry can be a path towards that dream of independence.
RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: I meet Victoria Reedy at her home in Schenectady, N.Y.
VICTORIA REEDY: Hi. How are you?
CHATTERJEE: Vicky's 23, lives with her parents and two sisters. She has long black hair and wears sparkly nail polish. And although she's of normal height now, as a child, she was very small. That's because she had problems with her pituitary gland. It didn't produce enough growth hormone.
REEDY: I was six years old and the same size as my little sister, who's four years younger than me.
CHATTERJEE: Her brain was slow to develop, too. It affected her speech and her ability to socialize, and school felt really hard.
REEDY: I struggled at just about everything but art, had a really hard time reading, writing and, like, learning things, in general.
CHATTERJEE: She got through school thanks to a program for developmentally disabled kids, and doctors fixed some of her growth issues with medication. But until about a year and a half ago, she depended on her parents for everything outside their home from getting around to handling money. Then she got a job at a bakery.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible).
REEDY: OK. Now I...
CHATTERJEE: Puzzles Bakery and Cafe in downtown Schenectady is bright and spacious and packed with customers sitting down for lunch. Vicky stands behind the counter matching orders coming out of the kitchen, making sure her colleague serving customers takes the right order to the tables.
REEDY: These three are going to that table behind Dan (ph).
CHATTERJEE: As a senior cafe attendant, Vicky handles customers, trains interns, organizes food. And in between, she works in the kitchen, doing dishes or slicing meat and cheese. Today, she's been slicing a brick of provolone with an electric food slicer. It can take up to 20 minutes to go through a block of cheese, but Vicky says she finds it rewarding. Later during her lunch break, Vicky tells me how the job has helped her.
REEDY: I have better people skills at this job.
CHATTERJEE: She's even made new friends among her colleagues, and she says she's more confident and independent.
REEDY: I take the to bus just about every place I go if I'm not travelling with Mom or Dad or any of my friends.
CHATTERJEE: And her colleagues can see the difference in her. Sara Mae Pratt is Vicky's boss and the owner of the cafe. She says working with food is a good fit for someone like Vicky.
SARA MAE PRATT: Food is very forgiving. If you mess up, not a big deal. You can throw it away. Try again.
REEDY: And some of the work, she says, like slicing cheese, stacking dishes is structured and repetitive, which many people with intellectual disabilities enjoy and even excel at. And, Pratt says, for people with social anxiety, preparing and serving food can be really helpful.
PRATT: They actually get to take part in the creation of this food and bring it to the customer and see that smile on their face. So I think that's a really wonderful thing about food. It really connects people.
CHATTERJEE: This was one of the main reasons Pratt opened Puzzles Bakery and Cafe in April 2015. She wanted to find a way to employ people with developmental disabilities who otherwise struggled to find jobs. She knows this from her own personal experience. Her 23-year-old sister Emily has autism.
PRATT: I certainly struggled with - what will my sister be doing for the rest of her adult life? She has a very long life ahead of her.
CHATTERJEE: Her sister is to disabled to work, but Pratt saw a need to help those who can work.
PRATT: When an individual can find their sense of purpose and really feel like they're contributing in a meaningful way, that is just so special.
CHATTERJEE: More than 50 percent of her staff has a developmental disability. Madeline Hannon is 23 and has autism.
MADELINE HANNON: Order for Mary Ann (ph).
CHATTERJEE: She only works three hours a day and spends a lot of it serving customers.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you so much.
M. HANNON: Have a good day.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You, too.
CHATTERJEE: Later, Maddy tells me about her dreams for the future.
M. HANNON: I want to work at Disney World in a bakery.
CHATTERJEE: Why Disney World?
M. HANNON: They have more, like, gourmet stuff.
CHATTERJEE: But that would require you to move out of Schenectady, and would be OK with that?
M. HANNON: Definitely, yes.
CHATTERJEE: When Maddy's mother, Kathleen Hannon, stops by to pick her up at the end of a shift, she tells me the job has transformed her daughter.
KATHLEEN HANNON: The Maddy that walked in here probably the first day probably didn't say hello to people when they come in, where today I know she's out there. She will talk to the customers that come in. And we've seen a big difference in her, you know, at home. She's happy.
CHATTERJEE: Kathy says the job has given Maddy a sense of belonging.
K. HANNON: It's her job. It's her friends. It's her responsibilities. That's important.
CHATTERJEE: She says Maddy recognizes that she'll always need extra support, but the job has made her realize how much she can do on her own.
K. HANNON: She's wandering further and further away from us. She's looking for more independence.
CHATTERJEE: And, she says, it's at once scary and wonderful. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.
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