Saturday, October 29, 2005

Employment brings independence

Working at a local restaurant helps keep Robert Metz healthy, wealthy and plenty busy.

BLACKSBURG -- When payday arrives at Lefty's Main Street Grille, Robert Metz is ready.

Sometimes he'll call ahead and see if his check is there. Sometimes he'll call twice.

"Even on his day off, he marches in and is like, 'Show me the money,'" laughed Lefty's owner Frank Perkovich. "He gets his envelope and he floats out of here."

For Metz, who has a developmental disorder called Asperger's Syndrome, the check is more than money in the bank. It's a sign of his independence.

It means he has somewhere to go and something to do during the day. It means he'll have ready cash for trips or gifts. And it means he's not letting his disability get in the way of living a normal life.

These benefits are things the Department of Rehabilitative Services hopes to highlight this month during Disability Employment Awareness Month.

According to the Yale Developmental Disabilities Clinic Web site, people with Asperger's display deficits in social interaction and unusual responses to the environment similar to those with autism.

But unlike with autism, cognitive and communicative development is within normal or near normal range in the first years of life, and verbal ability is usually an area of strength.

Metz's articulateness was one of the first things that struck Perkovich when he hired the 24-year-old.

"People talk about him having a disability, and I have no idea what it is," Perkovich said of Metz.

"On many levels, he's above average: he's good-natured, he's well-read and he's intelligent."

For a little more than a year -- almost as long as Lefty's has been open -- Metz has worked in the restaurant's kitchen doing food preparation.

Not one for mornings, he'll pull himself out of bed about 7 a.m., pour a bowl of Cheerios and walk a couple blocks from his home to the eatery.

It's not a remarkable routine, but it's a big part of why Paul Metz believes his son leads a very good life.

"I think he's healthier, wealthier, wiser and has more friends as a result of the job," said Paul Metz, who is director of collection management for the Virginia Tech libraries.

"We're proud of him and it's a great relief. All parents worry about their kids and when you have a kid with a major label like that, you worry more."

In addition to working mornings at Lefty's, Robert Metz works afternoons at Backstreets Pizza & Restaurant.

"They say he's the best pizza-maker around," said Gloria Parry, an employment consultant with Career Support Services, a Richmond-based company that contracts with the state Department of Rehabilitative Services.

Parry has worked with Metz since 2003. Initially, she helped the Blacksburg High School graduate find a job, maneuver bus routes and plan a schedule that leaves plenty of time for travel and guitar lessons.

Now that he's in her long-term follow-along program, Parry checks in on Metz twice a month. He is one of 42 people in her current caseload.

"He's really grown since he graduated," Parry said. "Having a full day for everybody makes you feel productive and that's what we want for Robert: to have that normal full day that young men have."

Shortly after Metz arrives at Lefty's, Perkovich scrawls a to-do list for him and other employees.

"The only thing we do differently for Robert is put his initials by [the list]," Perkovich said. "He looks at it and he knows what he does; I don't check up on him any more than anyone else."

But when he first hired Metz, Perkovich admitted he had some reservations.

"I was hesitant primarily because it's my first restaurant," he said. "I needed to open and was concerned to have someone who I perceived to need special attention."

Perkovich's fear soon vanished, and as part of Disability Employment Awareness Month, the Department of Rehabilitative Services is organizing events to encourage others to take a similar chance.

At a recent presentation at the New River Valley Competitiveness Center, department counselors awarded a number of local employers and employees for their efforts.

Keith Hill, from the Virginia Employment Commission, was also on hand to talk about tax credits available to employers who hire certain job seekers.

Those such as Perkovich who hire vocational rehabilitation referrals can apply to the employment commission for work opportunity tax credits.

But while he is aware of the tax credit, Perkovich said it was never a deciding factor in employing Metz.

"It wasn't an incentive," Perkovich said. "It's more just icing on the cake."

The cake is Metz's ability to methodically cut his way through avocados, Portobello mushrooms and finally, red onions.

"I always loved cooking," Metz said as he inserted onion after onion into a metal slicer. "I cook just about anything."

And working? Metz said he loves that too.

Indeed, the aspiring actor doesn't know what he'd do if he didn't work.

"I don't really want to think about it," Metz said.

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