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Servers and students share nourishment

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On Wednesdays, 36-year old Jenny Elmore serves lunch to a noisy stream of Ross Montessori School (RMS) students. For two hectic hours, she places a slice of pizza and a cupful of iceberg lettuce on paper plates, and hands them across the counter to the hungry kids. At frequent intervals, she sanitizes all surfaces, a pre-Covid requirement. “I love my job,” says Elmore.

She also loves her shoes. She lifts up one foot shod in a rainbow-colored Croc to show The Sopris Sun. Elmore’s new co-worker Rachel Busk, who wears a baseball cap low over her brow, says she loves her job too. “I like serving lunches to people. I like to hang out with people,” says Busk, who hadn’t had many chances to do either.

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At 23, this is Busk’s first job, says Crystal Hunt, the supported employment manager at Mountain Valley Developmental Services (MVDS) in Glenwood Springs. MVDS provides intellectually disabled clients, from age four up, with life skills that strengthen their independence in inclusive settings. Hunt finds organizations around Glenwood Springs that can place MVDS clients like Elmore and Busk to hang out in public while earning the $12.32 minimum wage for the hours they work.

The RMS gig, however, was the idea of Head of School Sonya Hemmens, three years ago. Hemmens says she knew that MVDS clients worked at the Safeway in Glenwood, and when the store closed, she decided she wanted to employ developmentally disabled people at the school.

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“It’s something I’ve wanted for Ross, because kids don’t get to engage with people who are different from them,” says Hemmens. “MVSD is in service to us, and we are in service to them.” And, Hemmens says, she “wanted a dependable work staff.” She can rely on MVSD workers, accompanied by job coaches, to show up because they are provided with transportation.

Ross Montessori had its own connection to the work program through its school cafeteria manager Daisy Contreras. Contreras, a registered behavioral technician, previously worked at MVSD. “It’s wonderful to see some of my old clients working in the cafeteria,” she says.

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Hunt acknowledged that when MVSD clients first showed up to serve lunch, there was an adjustment period. “Kids would just stare, because some of our clients look funny to them,” she said. This made a few of her clients uncomfortable. Now, the students seem not to notice any differences, and they converse with the servers. “The kids say ‘hi,’ and our clients say ‘have a nice day,’ or compliment a hat or sweatshirt.”

Ross Montessori, according to Hunt, is the first school in the valley to hire from MVSD. The ski wax company mountainFLOW, based in Carbondale, hires MVSD clients to package their products from home, Hunt says.

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MVSD sends two clients to work Ross’s three hot lunch shifts each week. Other  lunch servers are Moria Sanchez, Molly Murray, David Argotte and Tom Padilla, Hunt says. At Ross, the job coaches closely supervise everything that goes on. “We’re here to provide on-the-job training,” says David Kime, who along with coach Anji Timmons, repeatedly reminded Elmore and Busk to do each of their tasks. “We give constant feedback,” says Kime.

Since Colorado’s vaccination mandate for caregivers went into effect, Hunt says the biggest problem she faces is hiring new coaches. She says she regretted having to fire three who “had the gift” of engaging with MVSD clients, because the coaches refused to get vaccinated.

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Nevertheless, with October being National Disability Employment Awareness Month, Hunt says it’s a good time to promote MVSD’s workforce availability more broadly. MVSD’s clientele live in Eagle, Garfield, Lake and Pitkin Counties. “Like anyone else, the developmentally disabled get bored just sitting around home,” she says.

Tags: #community #Dyana Z. Furmansky #Mountain Valley Developmental Services #Ross Montessori #school lunch
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