Two friends, two different fates
One is part of the community, the other stuck in a workshop
Erin Ebert was on her knees, edging along the church floor and scrubbing a stained-glass window until it reflected her sweaty face in the dim morning light.
A supervisor paced slowly behind, monitoring Erin and her colleagues, a work crew of people with disabilities.
“OK, you’ve got 15 minutes,’’ she shouted, glancing at her watch.
“Is it just me or is it hot in here?” Erin muttered as her pace quickened.
Only 5 miles away, Erin’s longtime friend, Suzanne Sukalski, was having a very different morning. Beaming as she crossed the busy lobby of a Hampton Inn, she poured coffee and passed out handwritten thank-you cards to a table full of Kansas ranchers who were in town for a cattle show.
“Come back again soon!” Suzanne said cheerily as the ranchers climbed off their stools.
Though both have Down syndrome, Erin, 26, and Suzanne, 23, have been on starkly different career paths.
Erin makes as little as $2.75 an hour at MRCI, a sheltered workshop operator.
Suzanne makes $10.10 as a breakfast hostess at the Hampton Inn.
While Erin and her cleaning crew are largely hidden from public view, Suzanne’s is the first face that many visitors see each morning in this southern Minnesota town.
Just how Erin and Suzanne wound up on such different trajectories is a case study in the fickle nature of job opportunities for Minnesotans with disabilities.
A large but unknown number of people who work in sheltered workshops are capable of holding competitive jobs in the community, state officials acknowledge.
But many of these workers say no one ever encourages them to look for something better — or even asks what they want to do.
“So much of this comes down to serendipity,” said Diane Sukalski, Suzanne’s mother. “The job opportunities aren’t that great in a lot of towns this size, so it’s easy for a young person to end up in the wrong setting.”
Were it not for her Cheshire cat smile, Suzanne might never have landed a regular job. She was in high school, working at a restaurant as part of vocational training program, when a local hotel manager noticed her sunny disposition. Later he spotted her beaming graduation photo in the local newspaper, with the word “Work” printed next to “Future Plans.” He immediately called Suzanne’s parents and offered her a job as a breakfast hostess.
With some prompting from a job coach, Suzanne soon was juggling almost every task at the Hampton Inn. She cooks eggs, refills trays on the buffet table, dashes in and out of the kitchen with fresh coffee, and hands out her signed thank-you cards. On a recent morning, when the last of the hotel guests departed, Suzanne swayed her hips in a dance as she mopped the floor.
“I love my job!” she said.
“Hiring Suzanne was a home run,” said Jason Subbert, who oversees four hotels for TPI Hospitality in Fairmont.
Erin, too, participated in a job training program in high school. It led to part-time work busing tables at a local Pizza Ranch, but the job lasted only a year.
Erin applied for work at nearly every restaurant in the Fairmont area. But her mother, Karla Ebert, says no employer was prepared to take the risk of hiring a person with disabilities, even as part-time help, and the sheltered workshop became their only option.
Every so often, Suzanne and Erin have sleepovers at each other’s homes in Fairmont. They stay up late, talking about their boyfriends, their shared fondness for shopping and their career ambitions. Erin dreams of modeling clothes, or perhaps even starting her own child care center someday, though she’s not sure how to make those dreams come true.
“I’m just a person who has feelings,” she said. “I call myself an angel, because I’m a wonderful person and a wonderful worker.”