Nick’s first job as a high school junior offered him barely any hours or responsibilities, but he and his parents knew he was capable of more. Then Nick was paired with Gerry Lalime, Career Resource Specialist (CRS) at the Portland, Maine office of Work Opportunities Unlimited (WOU). Under Gerry’s mentorship, Nick began a new job that has challenged him and brought him closer to his goal of independence.

As a CRS, Gerry dedicates his days to breaking down barriers to employment for people with disabilities. When he met Nick during the summer of 2019, Gerry sought to find Nick a position with a variety of tasks that he would enjoy. They visited a local grocery store, where Nick showed interest in the bakery. Gerry had placed several WOU clients there, and the director was eager to give Nick a chance as well.

Nick’s first task as a bakery assistant was to set up trays of cookies. At first it took Nick two hours to complete a case of cookies, or eight trays, because he would very carefully space each cookie, recount the cookies, and straighten the rows until they were perfect lines. His supervisor demonstrated how to quickly complete the trays, but he would revert to his method. It was clear that Nick learned tasks immediately – as Gerry says, “He knows his job as well as anybody in that bakery” – but his passion for precision kept him from completing them efficiently. Gerry worked one-on-one with Nick on each shift, trying various time management strategies. Some strategies worked only briefly, but repetition and consistency helped Nick slowly develop new habits, and he mastered more tasks like packaging and preparing brownies, pastries, doughnuts, and bagels.

About 90 days after Nick’s hire, WOU’s work support had to pause as Nick transitioned to adult services and was on a waiting list for Maine’s Supported Employment waiver. Nick kept working with his natural supports until he took a leave of absence to protect his health at the onset of COVID. When Nick returned to work, his productivity gains had diminished. As soon as WOU could resume support, Gerry returned to coach Nick and help him get back on track.

On a site visit, Portland Director Sarah Pednault had a great idea: she noticed Nick wore an Apple watch and suggested using its timer. Gerry helped Nick determine how much time to allocate per task and reminded him to reset the timer for each task. Nick’s efficiency increased dramatically! His supervisor expanded his responsibilities and began giving him a list of tasks to complete each shift. Gerry reviews the list first to help Nick succeed, taking great care to time tasks; he’ll account for extra steps involved in baking sugar cookies, for instance, or for Nick to change his gloves several times if he’s handling stickier treats like brownie cookies. Nick has progressed from only setting up one case of cookie trays to setting up and baking over 1600 cookies, 47 loaves of bread, and then breaking down and recycling the day’s cardboard in a 3-hour shift.

Nick’s progress has also helped him gain confidence. He’s very friendly with his coworkers and enjoys their conversations. He is also expanding his customer service skills as he assists customers asking for a cake from the display or for a loaf of bread to be sliced. Nick’s growth remains a work in progress, so Gerry continues researching different strategies, like a time management app that will allow them to program tasks easily. Nick is determined to meet his job goal of 20 hours of work per week to meet his personal goal of living on his own. To increase his hours, Nick must work as efficiently as his coworkers, but Gerry knows Nick can do it. After all, Nick began at 0% efficiency and now achieves that goal about 75% of the time. Nick’s supervisor Meg, who provides a steadying influence, says, “Nick is conscientious, knows setup procedures and has become an integral part of the bakery. He continues to improve his attention to the task at hand.”

Gerry meets with one of Nick’s parents after each of his shifts, and they are grateful for Gerry’s compassion and dedication to Nick’s development. Gerry says, “You know the saying that it takes a village. Nick has continual support from his supervisor, his coworkers, his parents, and his girlfriend…He has a village gently pushing him along.” With his determination to succeed, his supportive village, and Gerry on his side, Nick is getting closer to realizing his dreams. Great job, Nick!