WASHINGTON, NJ (Warren County) – Mark smiled, as he placed a perfectly portioned dollop of ketchup into a small plastic dipping container. “I also like weighing the French fries,” he says.
From the outside it seems as though Mark is just guy that’s happy to be doing his job at a Joe’s Alpha Dogs on Route 57 in Washington. While that might be an accurate description to a certain degree, the truth is – Mark is extraordinary. For the past three weeks he’s been proving that people with disabilities can succeed in the workplace and blaze a trail of their own that leads towards a bright future. “Try it,” adds Mark.
Mark is currently in the job-sampling stage of a new program called, “Star,” which is a collaborative effort between Abilities of Northwest New Jersey and Warren County Community College. The goal of the program is to help Mark, and many others, find jobs.
“We also have a classroom, where students come and learn soft skills – like the importance of having good eye contact, a nice handshake, and interviewing skills,” explains program manager, Mary Helck. “After coming to the classroom in the morning, they eat lunch, and then go out and do their job sampling with their job coaches. It’s great exposure for them, so that they can determine what they like and what they don’t like.”
While it’s clear Mark enjoys working at Joe’s Alpha Dogs – he’s not alone. In addition to members of the Star Program, Joe’s Alpha Dogs, has also opened their doors to 18-year-old Warren Hills High School Student, Benaiah. “My favorite part is (stocking) soda, and then doing the french fries, and ketchups,” he says.
Paraprofessional of Warren Hills High School, Marie Zengel, accompanies Benaiah to Joe’s Alpha Dogs – as well as two other area businesses Benaiah spends time working in. “Not only is it great for Benaiah to be getting these skills, so after high school he could have employment. But it’s also important for people to recognize that there is a place in the community for people with disabilities, and they want to partake,” says Zengel.
Although getting a paycheck isn’t part of the program, Benaiah, never leaves Joe’s Alpha Dog’s empty handed. “A Chilidog with Cheese please,” he says to owners Vincent and Frances Russo.
The specialty hotdog restaurant is owned and operated by the Russo family, including their son Joe.
“Our son, Joe, is special needs as well,” says Vincent Russo. “As much as we wanted to open our own business, we also wanted to do something where Joe could come and work.”
Russo says Joe comes in on Saturdays. “We call him the boss. And right now I’m creating a spread sheet for Joe. He’ll be taking inventory of the sodas. I’m going to give him more responsibilities, and we’ll see how it goes.”
Russo explains that the tasks he’s offering are hands on, and meaningful for everyone. “We are very much committed to making sure each person has a list of things that they can work on completing. We don’t give them just busy work. We’re not having them do things like mop the floor, or wash dishes,” says Russo.
Russo hopes to see more businesses in the area provide opportunities for people with special needs. While it may be challenging at times Rizzo says, “It’s also so rewarding. It just makes you feel so good that you’re helping and doing something for people, who otherwise might not be able to do anything and find themselves sitting at home. Instead you give them a place to go. Talk to them. And if they get something done – great! If they don’t – it’s okay! There’s always next time.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 29 percent of Americans ages 16 to 64 with a disability were employed as of June 2018.
For more information on the Star program with Abilities of Northwest New Jersey and Warren County Community College click HERE.