John on the job!

Sometimes job seekers aren’t sure of their potential and need a boost of confidence, like John when he first came to Work Opportunities Unlimited as a high school senior in 2017. During his initial meeting with Career Resource Specialist Danny Dzengelewski, John sat quietly and kept his head down. But because Danny dedicates his days to breaking down barriers to employment for people with disabilities, he was ready to support John however he could – and helped John find a job he loves!

As Danny got to know his new client, he noticed John grew animated while talking about the knife skills he was learning at a culinary arts program, so Danny focused on opportunities in the food industry. John first worked as a dishwasher in a hotel kitchen, and then he switched to a small restaurant where he washed dishes as well as helped with cold food prep. Next, he began an on-the-job (OJT) training opportunity with a local baker. John really enjoyed talking to and helping the baker’s customers at local farmers markets. Once his OJT was completed, John applied for a position at the Lewiston, Maine location of Shaw’s. The grocery store’s environment was larger and busier than John was used to, but Danny said, “You like working with food and helping customers. Why don’t we give it a try?” John agreed, and after a successful interview, he was hired as a part-time grocery associate in the seafood department in July 2020!

Danny admits, “At the beginning, things were a little rough.” John wasn’t sure if he was cut out for the new role. Standing all day made his feet hurt, and he ruminated over little mistakes. Fortunately, John’s management crew gave him the support and reassurance he needed. Danny says, “They told John that they really needed him, which helped him a lot.” Danny and John would then meet offsite to talk through how he was feeling and plan strategies to overcome missteps. Danny reminded John that he had learned valuable skills from previous jobs and was ready to apply them. With this encouragement, John’s perspective shifted and he began adjusting to the new role. He developed a positive attitude and strong work ethic and overcame struggles more efficiently. Soon John took on more responsibilities in the seafood department and assisted in the deli as needed.

Now, Danny says, “He could run the seafood station by himself.” Each day John sets everything up, skillfully filets items as needed, stocks the freezer on the floor, tracks inventory, and keeps everything very clean. With his friendly, calm demeanor, John completes his tasks with a focus on quality over quantity. He anticipates what each customer will want so he can deliver exceptional service. “As an example,” shares Danny, “a customer asked for shrimp at his counter and then headed to the deli section for additional items. She said she’d be right back. John weighed her pound of shrimp, wrapped it up, and walked it over to her. It’s a small thing, but it meant a lot to the customer. He did it without thinking – he just goes above and beyond.” John’s love of culinary arts also benefits his customers. The Lewiston, ME Shaw’s sells many types of seafood to appeal to its diverse cultural population, and John will ask customers about the cuisine they prepare so he can try the recipes at home and recommend them to others. Danny says, “He strives to give good advice to customers. His focus always is, how can I make it better for you?”

John’s exceptional progress at Shaw’s was praised. He received regular raises, was promoted from part-time to full-time hours, and was named employee of the month near his one-year anniversary. Amidst department turnover, management relied heavily on John, and his hours increased to over 50 per week, which took a toll on John’s health. Danny says, “I found myself trying to teach him how to say no! He went from reluctant to go to a job, to unable to say no and working almost every day.” Danny and John worked on self-advocacy, and John requested more reasonable full-time hours.

Then John’s supervisor Nash transferred to another Shaw’s location in Auburn, ME. Shortly after, he asked John if he would like to join him. John was thrilled to once again work with the person who had him under his wing since he started at Shaw’s. Danny and John figured out all of the logistics to make the transfer a reality. Transportation was a potential issue, but with his hard work and savings, John was able to meet a huge personal goal and purchase himself a car.

John hit the ground running in Auburn, began training new employees, and within a couple of months, he was recognized for the second time as employee of the month! At their offsite meetings, Danny loves to hear how John continues to flourish at the new store location, and he is proud of John’s incredible progress from an unsure teen to confident employee of the month at two Shaw’s stores. Congratulations on all of your well-earned achievements, John!