Embracing all abilities: The ultimate win-win

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When you ask Mark Yost about what he does at SAS every day, his eyes light up. Mark’s our Assistant Manager for Food Services at SAS, but he’s so much more than that. He’s a champion for diversity and a leader who empowers his team to be the same. For the past 31 years, he’s dedicated his career not only to making our SAS cafes a welcoming and delicious place to dine, but he’s been an advocate of neurodiversity – working to support students and professionals with different abilities.

Our food services team partners with Wake County Public schools and Arc of the Triangle to help students with disabilities earn volunteer and work hours towards their occupational course of study to graduate high school. Students need classroom hours, 360 hours of community-based vocational training and 360 working hours with an employer to graduate. We’ve partnered with Wake County Public Schools since 1992 helping 1,150 students, and Arc of the Triangle for eight years, teaching students skills to make them successful after graduation.

Mark describes these programs as the ultimate win-win, so we sat down with him to learn more:

Embracing all abilities

Q: What makes these programs so special?

Image of Mark sharing the value of different minds, skills, and abilities.

Mark talks to us about the work he does with TEACCH and Arc of the Triangle.

Mark: We’re providing opportunities for students to gain real-world experience, and receive credit towards graduation. Some of them get bullied because they’re different, but here, they have a safe and inclusive place where they can be themselves, while learning new skills – whether that’s social skills or  vocational skills. And they help us with the prep that we need to run our food service facilities.

For instance, our employees purchase hundreds of fruit cups a week, and we need help getting all of the fruit cups ready for purchase. So these students help us with meal prep, keep the dining rooms clean, and ensure we’re ready to serve meals.

Q: It’s impressive that these programs help students graduate and acquire skills they can use after their time with us. I’ve heard that you have some great stories about some of the graduates.

Mark: I was in the mall recently, and I heard someone say, “That’s Mr. Mark! That’s Mr. Mark from SAS!” I looked around to see who it was, and saw one of our graduates walking towards me with her dad.

Her dad said, “I want you to know how much this program means to our family. Our girl doesn’t usually talk very much, but when she comes home after working at SAS, we can’t get her to stop talking about what she did that day! Every night, we now have to set the dinner table just like she learned at SAS - with napkins and silverware all in the right places. We love that she wants to come home and show us what she learned at work.”

It was so meaningful to see the impact the program had for this family, and to know that we were helping teach skills she could use to gain employment at a restaurant once she graduates.

One of our other students couldn’t read – so she couldn’t follow a written recipe – but she could bake the heck out of a cake! So our team learned that by adapting to her needs, and just laying out all of the ingredients, we could just let her work her magic.

Once we learned how to work with her, we were able to unlock her potential as a baker. After she graduated, she went on to work full-time in a local grocery store. She’s been there for over eight years now, and they still use the same method of laying out ingredients for her so she can make her cakes.

Q: That’s a really special story, and I know you have many more from students over the years. I’ve also heard you work with a program called TEACCH that helps place adults with disabilities in full or part-time positions - TEACCH even brings a job coach on-site for these employees. What have you and your team learned when working with TEACCH and these employees?

Mark: We’ve been working with TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication-Handicapped Children) for over 23 years. A job coach comes on-site to help people maintain full-time employment, and we’ve been fortunate enough to have Ronnie Peterson employed with us for 20 years, and Terry Wiseman has been with us for over 23. They’re a part of our SAS family.

What we’ve learned is that each person is unique, and has different ways they process information best. For instance, one of our employees can’t read, so we work with the job coach to move stickers around throughout the day so he knows what to do next, and this system works well. Another employee loves Where’s Waldo, so we have some stickers of Waldo that we move around throughout the day, and he must find Waldo to uncover the next task. There’s no one right or wrong way to do the work. There are just different ways that work best for different people.

Cookies with Brenda 

Image of Brenda interviewing with Danielle about her work with TEACCH students.

Brenda shares how she teaches students to bake her famous chocolate chip cookies!

Brenda Trice, SAS Food Services, works closely with the TEACCH employees and students and also joined our conversation after the dining room was ready for lunch. She shared that serving food is not only a life skill, but an art.

Q: Why do you think learning to cook is so important? 

Brenda: Well, I came from a family of 10, and we didn’t always have much. But my mom taught me that home training and cooking will help you even when times are tough. And there’s nothing in a kitchen you can’t fix. There’s always a way to make a recipe work. When I teach these students, I know they’re learning a life skill that will help them no matter where life takes them.

Q: What’s your favorite part about working with these students?

Brenda: I love making cookies with them. I show them how to make the cookies, how to combine the ingredients and how to find the right pans to bake with. Then, after I’ve taught them how to make the cookies, I have them teach another student. That’s how I know they’ve really learned something - when they’re able to teach someone else what they’ve learned. I’ve been at SAS for 18 years, and one of my favorite parts of my job is working with these students because I see the potential they’ll have out in the world after working here. I miss them when they are not here!

After talking with Brenda, Mark, Ronnie, and Terry – there’s no doubt that everyone has a role to play here at SAS. Everyone has unique abilities they bring to the table – whether it’s working together to find a way to leverage everyone’s unique talents, or helping train students to have the skills they need to be successful after their time at SAS.

Image of SAS F Cafe ready for lunch.

F Cafe is prepped and ready for lunch.

Want to learn more?

April is National Autism Awareness Month. And while we recognize the contributions of those with intellectual or developmental disabilities during April, we are proud to celebrate the full spectrum of neurodiversity and employees of all abilities throughout the year.

We know the value of embracing employees who may have different abilities, skills, and minds - and Temple Grandin reiterated the importance of different minds complementing each other with her talk at SAS Global Forum this year, and at the STEM Career Showcase for Students with Disabilities.

Image of F Cafe salad bar prepped for lunch.

Time to dig in and have lunch with Mark, Brenda, Terry, and Ronnie.

If you or someone you know is interested in learning more about the programs above, please reach out directly to TEACCH.

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About Author

Allison Bonner

Sr. Communications Specialist, Human Resources

Allison is responsible for creating SAS’ HR global internal and external communications strategy. She also represents SAS’ culture externally, speaking about the important connection between business and corporate culture. Allison holds dual degrees in Communications and Music from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a Masters of Business Administration from North Carolina State University.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for your wonderful article. Having a son with special needs, it’s reassuring to know that SAS values all employees. It says a lot about how they are willing to work with special challenges to help make the person successful in what they are trying to accomplish. Special shout out to everyone who goes out of there way to make this program a success! Maybe one day our son Colton can join the SAS family!

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