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Program links disabled, businesses
By CHASE SQUIRES
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 7, 2000
DADE CITY -- Charlene Swank got Hands On help.
Swank, 36, last week graduated from the startup public-private partnership Hands On Educational Services program, which places disabled workers with companies willing to give them a chance. It's a relatively new project that has enjoyed success working with the Edwinola assisted living center.
"It's a helping hand, a way to make sure they don't slip through the system," said program director and founder John Ficca. "We help bring the companies and the students together. There's no pressure -- if it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. But it usually works out."
Ficca calls the program participants "in-betweeners" because they aren't so disabled that they need daily assistance or perpetual state aid, but they aren't prepared to take on the world by themselves.
Since last fall, the Edwinola, in downtown Dade City, has taken in three participants. All three, including Swank, were hired when the training period ended.
"She fit right in," Edwinola food services director Matt Weinberger said. "We didn't know what to expect at first, but we'd try different things, see where her abilities were."
Swank is struggling to overcome a learning disability that impedes how she reacts in social and work situations. Although she is capable of handling most tasks, she often is unsure of herself and has difficulties dealing with some aspects of daily life, Ficca said.
Working with Susan Evans and the state's Vocational Rehabilitation division, Swank got into the Tampa-based Hands On program earlier this year. Hands On placed her with the Edwinola's cooking staff, where she found a niche.
"I really give all the credit to the staff," Weinberger said. "Everyone knew why she was there and knew what to expect, but they all went out of their way to make her feel comfortable. She's just like anyone else in there."
Swank said she enjoys the work and interacting with the seniors living at the Edwinola. She works as a prep cook, preparing meals, keeping the kitchen clean and even working in the dining room.
"I really like it," she said. "Everyone was so considerate and caring. They really care."
Evans said she got to know Swank through her office in Dade City and paired her with vocational-resource job coach Rosa Orona, who works for the Morton Plant Mease private assistance program in town. Orona worked with Hands On when the Edwinola agreed to accept Swank, and she will remain as Swank's support contact as she emerges from the Hands On umbrella.
Ficca founded Hands On in 1998 after both working in the food service industry and teaching learning-disabled students.
"There wasn't anything out there like this, a program for people who want to work," Ficca said. "So I went out there to people like Susan (Evans) and said, "What do we need? What would help?' "
Participants have had a range of disabilities, Ficca said. Some have been deaf, others suffered from back and neck injuries, and others have intellectual limitations present since birth or caused by traumatic brain injuries.
Since 1998, about 70 have been through the program, working with Marriott and Hyatt hotels, Olive Garden, Publix and Sears. In east Pasco, the Edwinola and Saddlebrook Resort have joined in. Ficca said he always is looking for businesses willing to take a chance.
"I think they'll be surprised," Ficca said. "They'll find themselves with someone who really wants to learn and really wants to work."
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