Lacey Athey shifted nervously in her seat and slapped her thighs as she rattled off the qualities that might make her an asset to employers.
“Let’s see, I’m creative, funny, hyper, attentive and ...” pausing to think, “driven. Definitely driven. If there’s something I can’t have, I’ll work hard to get it.”
For much of her childhood, Athey, 18, said she was held back by special education teachers who categorized her restless energy as a developmental disability. Over the years, she has been diagnosed with a range of conditions, including autism spectrum disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. All the diagnoses, she argues, stemmed from her inability to sit still in a classroom and complete homework assignments.
A conversation with Athey can shift quickly from her love of cats and horror films to her disdain for clinical labels for individuals with disabilities and mental health problems. “You know, they said I was autistic as a kid because I stuttered,” she said, laughing. “But I don’t stutter anymore, so I guess I’m cured!”
Even so, Athey has welcomed help from job counselors with the state VR program, which she sees as crucial to finding meaningful work and living on her own. The program helped her find a steady job at a thrift store in Columbia Heights, where she works 20 to 30 hours a week sorting donated clothing and sometimes at the cash register. The hectic pace and the ever-changing job duties fit her temperament, and Athey enjoys socializing with her co-workers during breaks.
“I can be a ninja!” she says, slicing the air with her hands. “All my homies are here.”
Athey graduated last month from St. Anthony Village High School and she has her ambitions set on a job as a funeral director or construction manager for a homebuilder. “I grew up in a broken home, so I’d like to build someone else’s dream house someday, to give them the stability I never had,” she said.