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Learning Disabilities Didn't Stop Them

From left, John Lemon, mentor David Robertson, and Carl Sheeler.

National Volunteer Week: April 18-24

The Department of Volunteer Services will honor volunteers at a luncheon, award certificates to those who have completed 100 hours of work during the past year, and distribute treats and light refreshments throughout the week.

Volunteer opportunities are currently in short supply. Managers and supervisors who need volunteers are urged to contact the Department of Volunteer Services, Carnegie 173, 410-955-5924.

Three and a half years ago, Carl Sheeler and John Lemon started volunteering several hours a day in Linen Distribution. Their assignment: Take the clean linens off the 45-foot-long trailer at the loading dock, then stock them in perfect order on the shelves in the linen distribution room in the basement of Osler. It was pretty hard at first because Carl and John, then 20-year-old students at the Claremont School, a special education center on Erdman Avenue, have learning disabilities.

But the two students received plenty of help. Nancy Malone, of the Claremont staff, constantly coached them on the job. Co-workers pitched in and showed them the ropes. “Gradually,” says David Robertson, an aide in Linen Distribution, “we noticed how well they were catching on.” Manager Erick Williams was so pleased he asked Carl and John to put in more time. Over the next year or so, the two each racked up more than 300 volunteer hours. That caught the attention of the director of environmental services and linens, Todd Gartrell. “If they’re doing their job,” he declared, “put them on the payroll.”

The Department of Volunteer Services at The Johns Hopkins Hospital now has more than 400 people on its roll of active volunteers. Many are college students or high school students. Some, like Carl and John, have special needs. These volunteers come from places like Claremont and other organizations that help disadvantaged men and women move into the workforce. They might be physically or mentally disabled or recovering addicts. Working under the careful supervision of a job coach, they typically begin as volunteers and become full-fledged employees if they are successful. “A lot of work goes into this,” says Gartrell. “We have an entire network of organizations we use to get qualified applicants.”

When Carl and John went on the payroll, they had to surmount more hurdles. They had to learn how to fill out the job application and sign in and out. Co-workers taught them how to recognize and write their names in cursive. They were proud to receive their official ID badges, but the big day was payday. “Carl and John had worked so hard as volunteers,” says Malone. “They were thrilled to see those first checks and realized they could even get paid for vacation.”

But Carl and John do not like to take vacation. They like to work. Each day, they come in one or two hours early. Not even the recent hurricane and snow storms kept them at home.

Now they are masters at navigating, entirely independently, the hospital’s complex warren of subterranean tunnels and above-ground corridors with their big linen exchange carts. They go into patient areas and deliver the carts to the units. “The work is very routine; they do it flawlessly,” says Gartrell. “Carl and John work hard, and best of all, they love the work. I’ve had other employees who are not challenged physically or mentally who are not half as good.”

Carl and John are fun to be with and people love having them around. Once in a while, they have to be reminded to slow down or stay focused. “Everyone needs some help; they just need it more than others,” says Robertson, who acts as mentor to the men. The experience, he says, has taught him patience. And Robertson, like the rest of the staff in Linen Distribution, has learned just how much people like Carl and John can enrich the workplace.

“We never expected it to work out this well,” says Claremont’s Malone. “But Johns Hopkins gave us a chance to show how good our kids are and how much they can help.”

- Anne Bennett Swingle

Best Worker at HCGH

Mike Waschak in the HCGH cafeteria.
Nineteen-year-old Mike Waschak is morphing into adulthood, trying to find his identity. But he’s not your typical teenager. He’s had to deal with intellectual limitations and developmental delays, not to mention awkward stares. Mike has Down syndrome.

A senior at Atholton High in Columbia, Mike is part of a life-skills program for kids with special needs, funded in part by Howard County General Hospital. Teens are assigned mentors and given internships at the hospital. At 16, Mike decided cleaning tables in the hospital cafeteria best suited him.

Mary Brzezinski, the school’s work-study coordinator, says the experience transformed him: “I watched him turn from a shy, immature boy into an amazingly confident young man.” At a volunteer luncheon at the hospital last year, Mike got up and spoke before 250 people, something he’d never done before. His remarks were brief: “I work really hard and I keep the tables clean. I’m the best worker in the hospital!” The audience immediately stood up and cheered.

Mike’s hard work has paid off. After he graduates, he’ll be working full time at HCGH.

—Judy Minkove



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