Danny, on the job!

“I just heard they arrested Tony the Tiger. Turns out he’s a cereal killer.” That’s the kind of “dad” joke you will hear in an endless string if you meet Danny around town in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, or are in the lunchroom at Bernon Heights Elementary School, where Danny now works thanks to the support of Work Opportunities Unlimited (WOU).

Danny first came to WOU for help finding a job in October of 2022. He had been out of work for almost three years. Like many, he lost his job as the COVID pandemic came into full force. Early in life Danny completed a wide range of trainings and vocational experiences with the support of the Rhode Island Services for the Blind. Danny then built a solid work history in food service. He was a food service contractor for a local corporation, where he cashiered and kept the dining room spotless. Before that he ran his own café inside the Woonsocket post office for approximately ten years, making coffee and breakfast sandwiches and manning the register. According to WOU Director Mike Amons, “This is where Danny really fell in love with the service industry. He developed a great relationship with his customers including the public and mail carriers, and became famous around Woonsocket for his catchphrase, ‘Coffee here!’”

Danny is blind and hard of hearing, but as his Career Resource Specialist Joe LyonWurm says, “It was clear soon after meeting him that his barriers have given way to super powers. We think he has a mental map of the entire city of Woonsocket in his head.” At age 13, Danny delivered newspapers and had to memorize the neighborhoods’ layout and landmarks. He echolocates, or “chirps,” to orient himself with his surroundings. Joe describes the sound as a combination of a cricket and a gym whistle. “He’ll chirp a few times to get an understanding of what’s around him… It’s something I’m still struggling to wrap my mind around.” Danny’s amazing spatial abilities even extend to car directions. When Joe picked Danny up to get his background check at the local police station for his new job, Danny told Joe to turn in two lights – the second of which wasn’t even visible to Joe – and it was a more direct route than the GPS directions. Joe was shocked, but as he says, “those kinds of scenarios happen whenever you’re with him.”

After being unemployed for so long, Danny was excited to get back to work. A couple of interviews at other employers in the food service industry didn’t pan out. Then Mike came across the lunch monitor position at the local elementary school. As a former teacher, Mike had connections with the Woonsocket Education Department, and he touted Danny’s experience and skills. Danny did a tremendous amount of work to develop his profile for the complex job application process required by the school system. His interview went very smoothly because, like most everyone else in Woonsocket, the interviewer knew Danny from around town, and Danny had the perfect background for the job. Joe recalls how easy the placement was, saying, “There was no hesitation on the part of the school department. It was more like, ‘When can you start, Danny?’” He began his new position in February 2023!

During his first shift, Danny spent time getting to know the dimensions of the lunchroom and the other employees. One coworker Tracy, who Danny knew from their school days, walked Danny through his tasks. Joe and Mike learned alongside Danny so they could coach him and identify any necessary modifications. Joe shares, “There were quite a few modifications, but the school has been over-the-top accommodating and there’s nothing that we haven’t been able to work out.”

Danny gets around the lunch room without help from his cane, which would be tricky to use when needing both his hands to clean the tables, but that doesn’t slow him down. He echolocates to familiarize himself with the lunchroom’s layout, the number of tables, and how they are spaced. He greets students as he walks up and down the rows of tables, making a mental note of where they are seated so he knows which tables are occupied and will require cleaning. By Danny’s second day on the job, he had a system, and by day four he was already keeping up with cleaning quickly enough to take short breaks in between lunch services. If their breaks coincide, the head custodian Matt, who is an old friend of Danny’s, will bring him a bottle of water and listen to his jokes. Within the week, Danny had already endeared himself to the entire staff and many students, who call him Mr. Dan. This is no surprise, says Joe, because “Everyone in the city knows this guy, and everyone loves him.”

Now Joe and Mike stop in to check on Danny, and sometimes help him fill out his time sheets, but thanks to Danny’s rapid mastery of his new job and necessary modifications in place, he is successful with minimal support. As Joe says, “He’s better at it than I would be! He doesn’t act restrained by his barriers at all.” In fact, Danny knows his way around the building better than his WOU team. Joe recalls a humorous moment when an orientation and mobility specialist came to meet with Danny and see his workplace accommodations. The specialist asked Danny to show her how he finds the teacher’s lounge to get his lunch. Everyone though Danny was going the wrong way because the school had rearranged some offices, and the new teacher’s lounge was still labeled as the library. Joe says, “We were confusing him, because he knew exactly where to go, but he figured we must know better because we could see where we were going. Of course, he was correct, because he was using different landmarks than we were.”

Danny’s infectious positivity wins hearts, and the phrase “Every day is a good day” is something you will hear each time you see him. His new job seems tailor-made for him because he loves kids, loves being a part of his community, and loves being able to feel productive again. He wanted nothing more than to get back to work, and with WOU’s support, he’s found a job he’ll enjoy for a very long time to come. Congratulations, Danny!