You could call it a graduation of sorts.
Bryan Snow is washing dishes at the Blu Chop House steak restaurant, while David Hodges is bussing tables at Top O’ The River seafood restaurant. Both learned basic culinary skills at Beautiful Rainbow, in the Gadsden Public Library, which employs a full staff of special-needs individuals from Gadsden City’s co-op and after-school program.
“Before we began our program, we did a retrospective study of students who had completed the special education program in the school system,” says Chip Rowan, the special education teacher at Gadsden City who birthed the program. “Five years after completion, none of the former students were employed or participating in an employment training program.”
That has now officially changed with Hodges and Snow.
“For us to have two of our Beautiful Rainbow students obtain bona-fide employment in the Gadsden community – and succeed – is a major progressive step that demonstrates the effectiveness of our program,” Rowan says.
And there’s more.
“We expect several more students to be hired in community-based employment in the months to come.”
Rowan started the program five years ago at Litchfield Middle School using culinary and horticulture training as a medium to teach basic math and reading skills to special-education students, many with autism. The program received a state Department of Education grant, and moved to Gadsden City High.
Community support helped land the program in the library, where it set up shop at Beautiful Rainbow Café to serve an upscale menu, with students growing food for the restaurant across the street in a garden.
Franco Antonelli, owner of Blu Chop House, has a long-standing friendship with Rowan, and agreed to give one of his students a try. Antonelli was impressed when Snow said he wanted to work to save money for a car.
“He’s shy and real humble, and meek, just a sweet kid,” Antonelli says. “He’s a great worker. He does exactly what you ask him to do. I gave him a chance and I’m glad I did.”
Top O’ The River manager Ethan Lake was impressed when Hodges and his guardian, Blake Champion, came in to fill out an application. Lake had been exposed to students with disabilities working at Talladega’s Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind as part of his kinesiology studies at UAB. He already had a busboy with a slight case of autism.
“He has more restaurant experience than any teenage guys his age,” Lake says. “If anything, we may have to lay things out in a more simpler version for him. But once he understands, you just have to tell him one time to do something. He takes the initiative himself to do things like sweep the parking lot or check the restrooms without me having to tell him.”
Hodges also has what every restaurateur, or any employer for that matter, longs to hear.
“He’s my No. 1 guy who doesn’t complain,” Lake says. “It’s ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir.’ He’s a good little guy who does a great job.”
That’s music to the ears of Rowan.
“The entire mission of Beautiful Rainbow is to use the café as a co-op training environment for students who traditionally have not had the skills or opportunities to obtain community-based employment,” Rowan explains. “We teach not only culinary and restaurant management skills, but also workplace etiquette, work ethic and work-related habits that are useful in a wide variety of workplaces.”