Training students with disabilities for hospitality work
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The waffle irons are crucial pieces of equipment at Ma Momma’s House of Cornbread, Chicken & Waffles. Two of the restaurant’s three titular specialties — the cornbread and the waffles — are cooked in the irons, and most of the restaurant’s menu features one or the other, either as a main item or a side to fried chicken.
“People come here for our waffles,” said owner Nicole Mackie. “And one of Eddie’s functions is he takes waffles out of the machines,”
Eddie is Eddie Thomas, a 20 year-old Ma Momma’s employee. Mackie wore a smile as she watched Thomas move from the restaurant’s open kitchen to the dining room, delivering flatware, water and plates of those steaming waffles.
“I like them,” Thomas said, bashfully, when asked about the cornbread waffles, which two visitors from Florida seated nearby had just proclaimed worth the trip to New Orleans.
Thomas is one of six students from Opportunities Academy, which caters to students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, who have worked part-time at Ma Momma’s in the past year. They are part of a small but growing O.A. student presence in the local hospitality workforce — one that is only likely to grow larger after O.A. opens in its new facility next fall, in the current home of Kipp Central City Primary.
O.A. is a post-secondary school, serving students between 17 and 22, run by the charter school network Collegiate Academies. One of the school’s goals is to teach students life skills necessary to live on their own, including the mastery of conventional tasks some might take for granted, such as filling out job applications, setting an alarm clock and taking public transportation.
Many students refine these skills working in rOAst, the on-campus coffee shop run by Academy students. On a visit last year to the Opportunities Academy at G.W. Carver Campus in New Orleans East, several students worked in the kitchen to fill school staff members’ orders for avocado toast. Others delivered orders and practiced making coffee.
A year later, many of these students are honing those same skills in paying hospitality industry jobs, participating in a virtuous cycle that furthers their development while filling a need in an employee-strapped industry.
“You have to be able to thrive in life outside of your family,” said Michael Smith, general manager of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, which employs four Opportunities Academy students in its culinary department, as well as at the hotel’s Starbucks.
“If our program didn’t exist, Eddie would probably be sitting at home” said James Lukens, the Academy’s executive director, referring to Thomas.
Lukens, working through a plate of Ma Momma’s red beans, said that O.A. serves students who would otherwise fall through the cracks of New Orleans’ education system. The recent, exponential growth of its student body is evidence of demand: This year’s 50 students is more than twice last year’s enrollment of 21. Next fall, when Opportunities Academy opens in its new location, which has 35 classrooms, Lukens expects the enrollment to be between 70 and 80 students.
“We want to create more diverse and inclusive environments,” Lukens said.“To do that, we have to ensure people with disabilities qualify for jobs.”
The students who move from O.A. into the workforce are not typical employees, at least not at first. O.A. provides professional job coaches who help the students adjust to their surroundings and meet their responsibilities.
Mackie said that while training O.A. students takes more time at first, the job coach ensures a more gentle learning curve by breaking down tasks into smaller steps. In relatively short order, Mackie said, her O.A. employees “are coming in here ready to rock and roll.”
She adds that the time invested in students is returned “many times” over.
“We enjoy helping others,” Mackie said, referring to her family, several of whom are her business partners. “We grew up extremely poor, and if it wasn’t for people helping us, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
And employers get more out of the arrangements than warm feelings. Smith, the Hyatt Regency general manager, expects students to become valuable, long term company employees.
“What we find is that certain associates can work here and then can go work at” other Hyatt properties, he said.
Ephraim Frey, a 19-year-old O.A. student with autism, started working at the Hyatt’s Starbucks as part of an eight-week program. He arrived on the job with experience, having worked at the on-campus coffee shop, and excelled enough that Starbucks asked him to stay on after the program was complete.
“It’s a pretty good job,” Frey said, “if you’re interested in getting into the workforce.”
He takes the bus to the Hyatt from his home in the Lower Ninth Ward, where he’s lived all his life, save for a period his family evacuated to Texas for Hurricane Katrina. He juggles his job responsibilities with his studies, including computer programming.
“We’ve already learned how to make websites,” Frey said.
Frey searched for ways to express how his Starbucks job has helped shape his thoughts about his future: “Stimulation, that’s the word I’m looking for!”
“What I really want to do is more physical, where I can put my hands into something,” he continued. Frey cataloged his tasks — filling orders for coffee and tea, keeping the lobby clean — as his eyes moved around the shop and out into the hallways of the massive hotel, which buzzes with activity.
“There seems to be a lot going on here,” Frey said. “It seems to be a place where I could really start something.”