Special needs employees show their skills and succeed in the marketplace

Their journey into the workforce began in a makeshift grocery store built in the early 2000s in a North Hills warehouse to teach adults with disabilities how to become supermarket courtesy clerks, formerly called “box boys.”

Their days of receiving financial support from the state ended at age 18, and now as adults they were looking for what everyone wants — an opportunity and a paycheck.

A chance to show what they could do after all the years of living in the shadows and being told what they couldn’t.

“It was an open door,” said James Robinson, 38, a courtesy clerk for the last 14 years at Vons supermarket on Ventura Boulevard in Tarzana. “It gave us the chance to succeed and build friendships with people we never would have met without this job New Horizons trained us for.”

James Robinson organizes shelves at the Tarzana Von’s Market Feb. 22, 2024. Robinson learned his skills at the mock grocery store at the New Horizons campus in North Hills, CA. (Photo by Andy Holzman, Contributing Photographer)

James Robinson bags groceries at the Tarzana Von’s Market Feb. 22, 2024. Robinson learned his skills at the mock grocery store at the New Horizons campus in North Hills, CA. (Photo by Andy Holzman, Contributing Photographer)

A mock grocery store has been built at the New Horizons campus in North Hills, CA to train developmentally challenged individuals on how to work at local stores.(Photo by Andy Holzman, Contributing Photographer)

A mock grocery store and classroom has been built at the New Horizons campus in North Hills, CA to train developmentally challenged individuals on how to work at local stores.(Photo by Andy Holzman, Contributing Photographer)

James Robinson runs the register at the Tarzana Von’s Market Feb. 22, 2024. Robinson learned his skills at the mock grocery store at the New Horizons campus in North Hills, CA. (Photo by Andy Holzman, Contributing Photographer)

James Robinson now works at the Von’s Market in Tarzana after receiving training at the mock grocery store at the New Horizons campus in North Hills, CA.(Photo by Andy Holzman, Contributing Photographer)

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The nonprofit, social service organization is celebrating its 70th year in the San Fernando Valley providing support and training to thousands of special needs clients, like Robinson, just asking for a chance.

They got it and what happened next is one of the Valley’s great success stories. People who were being written off by most of society rewrote their own scripts and became the stars.

“Customers love them,” said Rick Crandall, district manager for Albertsons and Vons. “They do an amazing job and have become the favorite associates of people shopping in our stores.”

You can’t fake enjoying your job when you’re working at the front end of a supermarket where the customers are checking out more than just prices. They’re checking out the special needs courtesy clerks, like Robinson, too.

“You can tell they look forward to coming to work,” Crandall said. “It’s their life. Other people have outside activities. To them, this is their home, their family.”

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Crandall has been in the local grocery business for 53 years, starting with Dale’s Markets when he was 15-and-a-half. He’s learned a thing or two.

“David Dale, the owner, would work as a box boy every Sunday for 30 minutes at each of his 10 stores across the Valley,” Crandall said. “He knew the front end was the most important, challenging section of the market to work.”

There were few special needs employees working in supermarkets back then because the markets didn’t have a pipeline of available labor to rely on. That changed when Crandall met Diego Victorio from New Horizons.

Both men knew it would take more time for special needs employees to learn the process and feel comfortable in their challenging new jobs.

They didn’t want them showing up to work and feeling overwhelmed, maybe quitting after a day.

The only way around it was to bring a supermarket to them. Crandall got Albertsons to provide the shelving, cash registers, and freezers.

He called all his major product lines and asked them to send him empty boxes of their products to stock the shelves.

Diego put the trainees through the drills. A clean-up on aisle five, go-backs on aisle two, a price check on aisle six, and most importantly, make sure the bread goes on top of the heavier items in paper or plastic.

What they didn’t need to teach their special needs crews were the smiles and eagerness to learn.

This was their shot; they weren’t going to fail. They were going to be on center stage at the front end of the store, not back in the warehouse where they had lived most of their lives.

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“They wanted so badly to do well and make their markets proud of them,” Crandall said. “And, they have.”

The door opened and they walked through it — giving us a whole new meaning to the words “special needs.”

On Saturday, March 16, New Horizons will have its annual 15th annual Walk-a-Thon at its North Hills campus. It’s a chance to meet some incredibly dedicated people.

For more information, contact Olga Ramaz at 818-221-0632 or email at oramaz@newhorizons-sfv.org. Details on the walk and to register: newhorizons-sfv.org/walk-2024

 

Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Sunday. He can be reached at dmccarthynews@gmail.com.

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