Mentoring Special People

When opportunity knocked, Giant Eagle answered.The result is Project Opportunity, a community outreach program that offers jobs and ongoing mentoring to disabled young people between ages 16 and 21.Over the last 13 years, Giant Eagle, based here, has hired more than 300 people, including 100 through Project Opportunity, with a wide range of disabilities, including hearing impairments,

PITTSBURGH — When opportunity knocked, Giant Eagle answered.

The result is Project Opportunity, a community outreach program that offers jobs and ongoing mentoring to disabled young people between ages 16 and 21.

Over the last 13 years, Giant Eagle, based here, has hired more than 300 people, including 100 through Project Opportunity, with a wide range of disabilities, including hearing impairments, vision impairments, mental retardation, emotional problems, cerebral palsy, autism, epilepsy, spina bifida and paraplegia.

"We look beyond a person's disabilities and at the true potential of each individual," Vicki Clites, director of human resources services, told SN. "They serve as inspirations to our workforce and to the customers who shop at our stores.

"Giant Eagle has always had a strong sense of social responsibility to the communities from which we draw our living, and helping those who face special physical, mental and emotional challenges is something we think about as we try to make those communities better by our presence.

"We established Project Opportunity to make the employment experience as positive as possible for people who usually face great challenges in finding a job, and it's proved to be a win-win situation for everyone involved because we end up with great employees, and the people who join our team find productive work."

In October, Giant Eagle will receive SN's second annual Community Service Award, which honors a supermarket retailer that excels in its relationship with its community. The award will be presented during the Food Industry Leadership Center Executive Forum at Portland State University in Portland, Ore.

Giant Eagle is a privately owned chain of 215 stores operating in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland — encompassing 131 corporate stores and 84 franchised independents —SN whose volume is approaching $5 billion.

The company developed Project Opportunity in 1991 as an employment and education support program to give students with disabilities realistic employment targets, independence, self-confidence and a permanent job with Giant Eagle, Dale Giovengo, director of human resources for the chain's divisions here and in Columbus (Ohio) and Maryland, told SN.

"Project Opportunity provides jobs to youths who may not have the opportunity to work otherwise," he explained, "and it gives Giant Eagle a chance to return to the community some of the support we have received over the years, as well as a way to obtain qualified, hard-working employees."

Disabled employees fill a variety of store positions, including baggers, bakery clerks, florists, stockers, cashiers, maintenance workers, meatcutters and wrappers, Eagle's Nest (playroom) attendants, office clerks and human resources managers.

How The Program Evolved

The idea for Project Opportunity had its inception when Giovengo was a 16-year-old working in the back room of a Giant Eagle store, he recalled. "I was inspired by a person with Down's syndrome who used to come in and help me bag oranges, which helped me learn what people are capable of," he explained.

Giovengo said he believes Project Opportunity has had an impact beyond Giant Eagle itself. "I believe we've been able to inspire other companies by our example when executives from those companies shopped our stores and saw the jobs these individuals can do, which has led to the employment of hundreds of other people with disabilities."

Giant Eagle began the program that evolved into Project Opportunity in the mid-1980s, when it teamed with Pittsburgh Vision Services here to place some of its clients in the stores. PVS is a nonprofit agency that works with people disabilities.

"When Giant Eagle came to us, we happened to be looking for a proactive way to develop relationships with school-age kids with disabilities, so the program fit both our needs," Dennis Apter, direction of vocational services for PVS, told SN.

When the initial placements for PVS proved successful, a pilot version of Project Opportunity was launched in 1991 with two students from Conroy Educational Center here, a special-education facility for students between ages 5 and 21 with disabilities. Of the two students in that pilot, both are still with Giant Eagle, along with 30 or 40 other Conroy students, Arlene Petite, transition facilitator at Conroy, told SN.

The pilot was set up at a store in West View, a suburb near Conroy, to make it easier for the students to get to the store by bus, Giovengo recalled. Space was set aside in the store for PVS coaches to help with the training — an unused checkstand where a cashier trainee could practice and an area in the back room where a stocker candidate was able to practice unloading merchandise and a section of the store where he practiced actually putting merchandise on the shelf.

According to Petite, "Over the last few years, Giant Eagle has given up an aisle at three of its stores where our students can practice and train prior to being employed so they can get extra experience."

Since the chain's initial involvement with Conroy, Project Opportunity has expanded to encompass students from the entire Pittsburgh public school system, Giovengo said. "The school system was very receptive to the idea," he noted.

Giant Eagle consulted with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union at the outset of Project Opportunity and proceeded with the union's full cooperation, Giovengo said.

Students are selected by the schools and given 20 days of classroom instruction by teachers and Giant Eagle staff members on job-readiness skills, such as attendance, appearance and attitude. Once they're ready to move into the stores, their on-the-job coaching by PVS staff members begins.

"PVS has been the key to the program's success," Giovengo told SN, "because of its willingness to provide supportive employment by working with and coaching the disabled employees."

According to Apter, PVS has four coaches who work with students five days a week in four-hour shifts to train them for their jobs. If the coaches determine special accommodations are needed, they contact Giant Eagle's other primary partner in Project Opportunity — the local Office of Vocational Rehabilitation — to obtain whatever assistive technology devices may be available.

Among those accommodations, according to Giovengo:

— Replacing a buzzer with a flashing light to alert deaf bakery workers when baked goods are done.

— Putting a volume control button on the phone receiver for a hearing-impaired clerk who takes bakery orders over the phone.

— Adding magnifying equipment to the computer screen for a store-level human resources manager with visual disabilities.

— Providing telescope glasses to a vision-impaired produce clerk so he can read shelf labels.

— Installing specially elevated ramps at checkstands for employees in wheelchairs, or wer tables for work in the bakery.

— Providing extension devices to wheelchair-bound employees to enable them to stack merchandise above their height.

— Instructing co-workers in sign language to help them communicate with a deaf deli clerk.

"We try to do whatever we have to do to enable people to do their jobs with the most efficiency," Giovengo explained.

Some disabled employees are assigned to the Eagle's Nest sections of Giant Eagle stores — play areas where parents can leave their children while they shop — "though we always have a non-disabled person available in case there's an emergency," Clites said. "But children tend to be very accepting of people with disabilities. We even have some dolls available that have visible disabilities, and playing with those dolls and seeing the disabled person in action helps kids explore their feelings."

As Giant Eagle has expanded into Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland, it has partnered with a variety of local agencies, as it does here with PVS, to identify and coach potential employees with disabilities. However, those efforts do not fall under the Project Opportunity umbrella, which is available only within Giant Eagle's core base of operations here.

"There was no need to expand Project Opportunity because we have a model that is well-established that we can use with service providers in other parts of our operating area," Clites explained.

Treating Each Case Individually

Training, which takes one day for non-disabled employees, may take three weeks or more for some disabled job candidates, Apter, of PVS, said. "If they have limited learning abilities, for example, it may require a lot of repetition. Or they may have to learn to become comfortable in the social environment of a store."

According to Giovengo, "The training process is customized for each student. There are some who get it in a month and others who may take three or four months. But the average is two or three weeks."

After they've completed their training with the PVS coaches, students are processed through the chain's human resources department. If they meet all the requirements that other employees must meet, they are hired. They may also receive follow-up, on-the-job coaching by PVS until they are ready to do the job on their own, Giovengo said.

"Our goal is to maximize their potential for success," he said, "and it takes special training and knowledge to help some of these people. That's why it's so important that the coaches work with them because they understand the perceptual issues of the disabled individuals.

"The coaches have also had time to learn the capabilities of each individual candidate: each one's history, medical background, and the kinds of job and job performance he's had before.

"Our own personnel could certainly provide the training the coaches provide, but the coaches are experts who work with disabled people all the time, which makes it possible to increase their chances to succeed," Giovengo said.

To raise the level of consciousness among employees, Giant Eagle holds a disability awareness training workshop every two years for the human resources managers at each store "so they understand the challenges some of these employees face and so they can also develop contacts with supportive employment agencies," Giovengo said.

At the workshop sessions, a variety of agencies that work with disabled people conducts sensitivity training sessions about hiring and training techniques. In addition, human resources personnel participate in exercises that simulate vision impairment, deafness, and other physical and mental limitations of disabled people so they can more fully understand what those people encounter.

"The training helps the managers to be more effective and sensitive in accommodating the needs of people with disabilities, and it helps create networking opportunities for them to interact with agencies that may have people to place," Giovengo said.

"The sessions also help our people bridge the perception gap between themselves and employees with disabilities, which helps the employees become more at ease in performing their job tasks because the focus is on their ability rather than their disability," he added.

According to Clites, "By and large, our customer base has been very receptive to our willingness to have people with disabilities working for us."

Giovengo said Giant Eagle's workforce seems to like the idea that the chain hires disabled workers, and it strives to make them feel welcome. "A lot of employees have family members with disabilities, so they appreciate the company's efforts to provide employment for these people, and the same with customers who know people with disabilities."

Giant Eagle received the New Freedom Initiatives Award from the U.S. Department of Labor last year because of its commitment to Project Opportunity.