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AbilityFirst Supports Clients Working on Front Lines

In recent weeks, grocery store employees have been working harder than ever to accommodate the increased demand triggered by “Safer at Home” policies to slow the spread of coronavirus.
One such employee, Rafael Vera, is a client with AbilityFirst who began his new job at Smart & Final the week the pandemic broke in California and local officials announced measures to encourage residents to stay at home.
Vera, 30, said he is proud to be working on the front lines as a sales clerk and happy to be helping the public during this trying time.
“We’re super busy, it’s hard to determine when exactly it will get very, very busy, but it’s always hectic on the weekends,” said Vera, who’s grown accustomed to wearing a mask and a double layer of gloves to work at the front-end of the store, restocking items and cleaning carts and door handles.
“I try to give people a good experience and brighten up their day; I really enjoy helping people out in general,” he said.
Vera, a Pasadena High School graduate, first came to his job at Smart & Final through the AbilityFirst supported employment program, which gives guidance in building a resume and filling out applications, as well as job training and valuable life skills like time management.
From the beginning, program officials were able to determine that Vera had the ability to work and a natural interest in connecting with others. However, he didn’t quite know how to start the process of getting a job, and he would feel anxious anytime he needed to ask questions. Before he could begin applying to jobs, he needed to get comfortable with the application process.
Since Vera enjoys being around people, his job developer at AbilityFirst helped him look for job openings that involve interacting with the public. He also worked on tools to increase his prospects, like studying math so that he would be able to use a cash register.
AbilityFirst CEO Lori Gangemi said part of the secret success of its job placement is that the nonprofit takes a very individualized approach to all its programs, including supported employment.
AbilityFirst, an organization that advocates for and alongside people with developmental disabilities and their families, has helped more than 500 people with disabilities find employment over the years and has supported even more in successfully maintaining their jobs.
“Our staff work closely with clients to determine their strengths as well as their desires and matches those with positions available with prospective employers,” she said, adding that they identify jobs through traditional methods as well as with the help of board members and other supporters. “Our clients are good, reliable workers because their skills and desires have been matched well with the job and because of the strong support they receive on the job from AbilityFirst job coaches.”
For Vera, even though he knew what kind of job he would like, he needed to train for the interview process by doing mock interviews to gain confidence in answering and asking questions. That also helped him create a daily check list, including dressing properly and making eye contact.
Taking a rest from his busy schedule in the break room recently, Vera said how much he appreciates AbilityFirst helping him find this job.
“I came to AbilityFirst through the regional center — it’s a great organization and was key in helping me apply to this job,” he said.
Vera also has an AbilityFirst job coach, Alisa Marin, who stops by during the week to see how he is progressing and make sure there is clear communication with his managers on expectations and performance.
“Rafael has been handling his new job and these unusual circumstances very well; he was supposed to only work part time but due to the situation they asked him to come on full time, so it’s a lot,” she said. “There’s a lot to be done, so he’s working hard. He tries to make each customer feel good.”
Meanwhile, Vera said even though working at a grocer is a lot of work during a pandemic, he enjoys using the money to help provide his family with some extra “hazard pay.”
He’s also learned about interacting well with others, even though for a while he had to help enact some rationing measures so people wouldn’t hoard at the store.
“I’ve seen my fair share of panic buying … the first two weeks it became really chaotic and we had to implement rations and tell people ‘Only one pasta, one carton of eggs, one milk’; people didn’t like it but you had to roll with the punches like that,” he said, adding that he also likes the fast pace he’s grown accustomed to at the store lately. “I enjoy my coworkers and my manager, it’s a really good store and a good company. I’m excited to continue to work here once this is all over too.”

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