Making lunch and changing lives

More than just a sandwich on the menu at World of Work

5/11/2017 | TACOMA, Washington

​When Michael Quinlivan hands you a carefully-wrapped sandwich with pickles and onions, and says “and I did the pickles myself,” a mundane task becomes transformative.

Michael has autism.

Like many people with autism-related symptoms, his senses don’t process stimuli quite the same as everyone else. In Michael’s case, pickles register as particularly grating. So a sandwich with pickles made—eventually—with care and given to a valued customer represents a great deal more than lunch.

Michael spends three hours each day working—and learning, and overcoming—at the Sandwich Express on the second floor of the Tacoma Public Schools’ Central Administration Building. The small business, part of a program called “World of Work,” serves the breakfast and lunch needs of the building’s more than 300 employees. More importantly, it gives special needs students—many of them with autism, like Michael—valuable social and emotional coping experience, plus real-life job skills.

Michael’s mother, Meg Quinlivan, sees a huge difference in her son.

“Michael has really come out of his shell with this program,” said Meg, the development director for a nonprofit organization in Tacoma. “When he started, he couldn’t give anyone eye contact and had trouble talking to customers and his teachers. Look at him now—this kid is amazing! He loves going to work. He’s more tolerant of smells and food and has interest in learning how to cook at home.

“I don’t know how his teachers have done it. Michael has been in so many therapies—we’ve never had success. But being (at the Sandwich Express) and being around food, he’s tried mozzarella sticks, and likes them, shrimp, and several other items,” she said. “It’s amazing.”

World of Work teacher Janell Raymond and vocational assistants Kay Mullen and Teresa Engbloom said finding the best placement for each student is the key.

“You used to be able to transition these students into state agencies, but as those state agencies faded away and lost funding, and students with more extensive special needs were added, what do you do to help them?” Raymond said. “What do we do with these kids who are almost ready to get that job at McDonalds, or as a courtesy clerk at Safeway, but they just need to work on a little bit of eye contact and social skills, and they’re not getting that at home? This program was designed to catch those kids.”

Finding and developing needed skills based on a student’s personality and aptitude drives World of Work’s model, the teacher added.

A student works on an order behind the line at the Sandwich Express.

“Maybe one of the students has a lot of good communication skills, but they're bad at making change,” Raymond said. “Maybe a student is super-good at making deliveries, but they can't stand being stuck at the cash register. And some students are happy as a clam to do dishes, because the dishes come to them and they can turn their back to the rest of the world. It's just like employment on the outside—some of us are dishwashers, some of us are servers, some of us are cashiers, some of us are hosts or hostesses. That's part of the fun of it. We let them sample everything and let them find their niche.”

The World of Work program once covered students up to age 21. The demand grew so large, Raymond said, that special needs students who have graduated or otherwise left the public school system—most of them 19-21 years old--now fall under the separate Community-Based Transition Program. Community-Based Transition works with those young adults out in the community, in partnership with local employers, as opposed to within a school setting. World of Work students aren’t paid for their time at the Sandwich Express but do earn scholastic credits toward graduation.

The cast of characters at the Sandwich Express changes from time to time. Most World of Work students spend two semesters in the program, but some stay as long as two years. Some of the old hands even become instructors of a sort.

“When new students come in, I put them with more experienced students, who then teach them particular jobs,” Engbloom said. “A student who already knows what to do is really good at showing the new person where everything is, and teaching someone else not only reinforces their learning but makes them feel good about themselves.”

“A student might already be doing something pretty well,” added Raymond. “You bring a new student in, and say, ‘Okay, so-and-so is going to follow you,’ and it helps the (experienced) student realize just how much they already know. Because now, someone is asking them questions and looking to them for information. And they start asking really excellent questions.”

The Spring 2017 lunchtime crew includes Michael, but he’s not the only student making dramatic progress.

There’s Aidan, who at first couldn’t make eye contact with anyone and communicated only in gestures and small squeaks. She now looks you right in the eye and speaks quiet—but complete—sentences. High-energy Trevor, whose favorite part of the day is delivering food all over the administration building and proudly wears his Special Olympics gold medal everywhere. Quiet Patricia, who seldom speaks, but once she knows your usual order will suddenly appear at your elbow with something you forgot to ask for, like a stack of napkins. World of Work prevents students such as these from falling through the cracks.

Having a teacher and two assistants in the program helps the process along. Raymond points out that the three “supervisors” have different personalities, just like the students, and finding the right combination of instructor and student makes a big difference.

“Some people, everyone clings to and works with,” Raymond said. “Sometimes one or another of us realizes that a particular student is perfect for us to take on. So maybe I’ll take that one on, or Kay or Teresa are better for working with someone else.”

Michael and his parents come from Tacoma, but the family moved to Florida when Michael was in preschool. His father, Derek Murphy, had career opportunities there.

“Public schools out there had zero programs for kids with any kind of special needs,” his mother said. “At the time, Michael’s autism had not been confirmed. They knew he had some developmental delays and sensory issues—but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because there were no programs. So he struggled. He didn’t receive a lot of support. He was expected to perform at grade level. The only available therapy was outside school, and at that time insurance covered nothing. Finally Michael got an autism diagnosis but the school in Orlando that had the program was full.”

Meg put her son in a private school but saw no progress at all.

“In fifth grade he was performing at a second grade level,” she said. “So we didn’t know what to do. There was a middle school autism program, but it was full.”

Finally the family moved back to Tacoma, after 12 years, and faced a difficult decision.

“I was afraid of putting him in public school, but I am so glad I did,” said Meg. “We all knew he had great potential.”

Not everyone fits the World of Work program, Raymond said. On occasion, a student proves unable to handle the combination of constant “public” contact and small working quarters.

“That’s pretty unusual,” Raymond adds. “Every once in a while you get that one kid. And it’s frustrating. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what we do, everything becomes a left turn, so to speak. So you default back to the (referring) teacher. The most recent case was a teacher who was brand new to the district, brand new to the program, brand new to the kid. Our successes often come from trial and error.”

“Brand new” doesn’t apply to Raymond, Engbloom or Mullen, all of whom are veteran educators. World of Work began 30 years ago, the same year Engbloom came to the district. Raymond’s been with World of Work 26 years, and Mullen 15 years. The trio takes great pride when one of their charges moves into the community and succeeds, and on occasion they see a student whose parent they once taught.

“One of our former students, we just got a report on, a young man who worked in the deli, very quiet, went on to the Community-Based Transition Program, and became a server at the (Tacoma Lutheran Retirement Community),” Raymond said. “He and another of our former students are now working in the kitchen there, prepping food. We got a call that said ‘Okay, you’ve set the bar so high, who are you sending us next?’ I ran into one of our former students after a movie not long ago, and he has his own landscaping business now. And when he came to us he was a kid who wouldn’t talk or look you in the eye.”

Such successes begin with small victories. Eye contact. A cheery morning greeting. 

Or pickles on a sandwich.

“We talk to Michael a lot about what he’d like to do after high school, and he is thinking about doing something with cooking now,” Meg Quinlivan said. “I think this is the coolest program ever.”