People with disabilities gain skills on the job

James Fenton
Taylor Kempton laughs with a customer, Tuesday at Safeway on West Main Street in Farmington.

FARMINGTON – No matter the weather or time of day, if Taylor Kempton is on the clock at his job at the Safeway store west of downtown on Main Street, he is all smiles.

Kempton, 25, has autism. And for the last five years, he has been the courtesy clerk at the grocery store, a job that he takes a lot of pride in, he said.

His mom, Kathie Kempton, said her son genuinely likes everybody, and working at Safeway has helped him become more independent and confident around people.

"When I drop him off, he has a big smile," she said. "When I pick him up, he has a big smile. It's been a huge blessing. Everywhere we go around town, he'll say, 'Hey, there's one of my customers.'"

Having a job at the store has helped her son gain a sense of independence and belief in his abilities, she said.

After volunteering at a school library and at the ECHO food bank, Taylor was sure he was ready to try to land a job on his own. When he interviewed at Safeway, he made his mom stay in the car, which was something she was unsure about.

"I told her, 'Mom, I can handle this,'" he said.

Taylor's part-time job at the store has led to more surprises, his mom said.

"When he was a teenager, I had no expectations for him," she said. "Then, to get through one day without a meltdown was a miracle. There were some years we didn't think we were going to make it, but he's developed out of it. He's developed coping skills on the job and, I think, being at work has helped. The routine gives him a sense of pride and self-worth."

Taylor recently received a certificate commemorating his five years of service at the store.

"I did that all on my own," he said, smiling.

Drew Schulz changes price tags Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015 at Safeway on West Main Street in Farmington.

Drew Schulz recently got promoted to a job at Safeway that he said is a matter of pride. Tasked with making sure all the pricing and sales stickers on items throughout the store are up to date and placed correctly, he finds the work satisfying because he can do it well.

Schulz, 25, has Asperger's, a high-functioning form of autism. He said the detail-oriented tasks he performs at Safeway are more fun to him than bagging groceries or collecting shopping carts in the parking lot.

He said having a job means a lot to him. He has worked at Safeway for seven years, and it is his first paid job. He said he feels like the job gives him a sense of responsibility and makes him feel independent. He live by himself and walks the 20 blocks to work most days.

Drew's mother, Connie Schulz, said that she has seen her son improve socially. While he used to refrain from speaking to strangers or making eye contact with people, he is more likely to do so today, thanks to all the practice he gets on the job.

"It's fun," he said of his new position at Safeway. Holding stacks of recently printed price tags, Drew said he was updating the price tags on a wall of DVDs in the store.

"You get to meet a lot of neat people," he said.

Connie Schulz said her son's work at the store gives him the opportunity to do meaningful work that he can accomplish around people, which is helpful in improving his social skills. She said parents of children who have disabilities will see benefits from employment, paid or volunteer.

Taylor Kempton retrieves shopping carts on Nov. 3 at the Safeway on West Main Street in Farmington.

"There are jobs for any ability out there," she said. "Being persistent and supporting your child, helping them find something they will enjoy, it's not easy. You worry about them, but you have to trust that they can do more. (Parents) who have their kids sitting at home, I feel for them because there's so many jobs out there for everybody."

Without his part-time job at the store, she said her son would not have grown to realize his potential.

"Drew not going to work, he'd probably be just sitting at home and not expanding his social horizons," she said. "This gets him out in the real world and around the public, forcing him to have a place in society. He's just really gained a lot of confidence and personality. He was so quiet and pretty shy before."

Safeway manager Wayne Antonson, said that Taylor and Drew are assets to the store.

"They all have a niche at what they can do in your business or organization," Antonson said. "They are very loyal. They are very loyal to their job."

The Arc of San Juan County, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advocating for and supporting people with disabilities, rolled out a video promoting work for people with disabilities this fall to dispel the stigmas that often surround people with disabilities in the workplace.

Pruda Trujillo, a board member of The Arc, said efforts are being made to provide more job coaching for people with disabilities.

Increasing the number of work opportunities for people with disabilities is one of the missions of The Arc, and Trujillo is eager to make greater headway with organizations and families in the community, she said.

As the mother of a child with a disability, she said she once had reservations when her son told her he wanted to achieve an independent lifestyle complete with a meaningful job and home of his own. 

"He told me, 'I want to live on my own,' and I didn't think he could. I didn't listen to him, initially," Trujillo said. "When he's talking to other people, he was very expressive to other people. I knew then that he really did want to live out on his own. It was a challenge. But I'm glad I listened. We talk for them. We don't push that independence. And we should."

Trujillo said The Arc holds meetings at 6 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month at The Arc thrift store, 200 W. Broadway Ave. in Farmington, and encourages families to attend to find resources like job skills training and other support.

"It's up to us to get started now, one by one, including people and get up a core group of people together and create opportunities because (people with disabilities) are so capable," she said. "People need to be needed. Everybody needs that. Even if it's not a paid thing, people need to belong to a group. Everybody needs a job."

Safeway food clerk Drew Schulz sorts through tags Tuesday at Safeway on West Main Street in Farmington.

Antonson said Taylor and Drew offer more to the business than he realized initially.

"There's a lot that we can learn from them. They all have a special place in my heart," Antonson said. "They give back more to me and Safeway than we give to them, I think. Long after I retire, I'll be thinking about those kids and wondering what they're doing. They hold a special place with me."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.