In a large room with yellow walls and fluorescent lights, 50 adults with cognitive and physical disabilities sit around school-cafeteria tables. They are putting miniature plastic pieces on strings that will later be attached to military hats.
Some are eager to show off their craft to visitors. Others prefer to decorate the Christmas tree.
In the crowd and hard at work is Michael Minkow, a 52-year-old with Down syndrome. The condition is caused when people are born with an extra chromosome, and, in Minkow’s case, may cause cognitive disabilities impaired speech.
It’s easy to notice Minkow in the crowd. He is decked out in his best clothes for a Wish Book interview. In light-gray suit coat with gold cuff links and dark-green suit pants, he is quick to make friends and is happy to explain his work
“Put them in one hole and then in the other. I do a lot,” he said.
For years, Minkow has been working at the Adult Day Training program, part of the nonprofit United Cerebral Palsy of Miami in Overtown. At the training program, he and others learn social and employment skills while on the job.
“I’d like to keep working here. I want to do more work and receive more money for the work,” Minkow said.
He said he would use the money to spend time with friends. “Because that’s my hobby – to go out.”
His favorite pastimes? Bowling, eating out, going to the movies and shopping for clothes.
But at 5 cents payment per each piece strung, the salary isn’t much. His paycheck for two weeks of work varies from $4.50 to $15.50, depending on how fast he works. On a good day, he manages to string about 30 pieces.
His tight budget limits his freedom to go out as often as he would like. So this year he is asking for gift certificates to restaurants, including his favorite one, Outback Steakhouse, as well as for funds that he could use for grocery shopping, bowling and movie tickets.
In addition, he would like new clothes and a new dresser because the one he has in his apartment is broken.
Minkow lives in a Hope Center apartment building in Kendall . Hope Center is a nonprofit affiliated with United Cerebral Palsy of Miami. It provides supervised community-based living for people with cognitive and physical disabilities. Minkow’s home is about an hour-and-a-half ride on the public bus from his Overtown job. He has to get up at about 6 a.m. every weekday to be at work on time. He rides with other apartment residents, who also work at United Cerebral Palsy of Miami.
“I talk to them. I am always nice to them,” he said.
Indeed, “nice” seems to be the first word that comes to mind once you meet Minkow.
As he walks down the hall at United Cerebral Palsy of Miami, he stops to greet administrators and gives some of them a hug.
“He is very kind,” said his mother, Gloria Sheehan, 79. “He likes to help people. If he could help them do something, he would.”
On a recent visit to the Overtown center, he and others listened to a musical therapist play guitar. They began clapping along with the music and before long, Minkow joined by tapping his hands on the table.
Then, it was time to decorate their holiday cards.
Minkow said he painted a Hanukkah tree on his card. He plans to give the card to his roommate and friend John Allen. The two often go shopping together at Publix and also go bowling.
“Sometime Johnny Allen wins, and sometimes I win,” Minkow said.
But nothing makes him as happy as talking about his mother and visiting her. When asked his three wishes for this holiday season, his ocean-colored eyes brightened and his face beamed: “Go home, go home and credit cards.”
He lives in his Kendall apartment most of the time, but he refers to “home” as his mother’s Delray Beach condo where he visits every two weeks.
“We have fun. We go out, and sometimes we eat Chinese food,” he said.
While his first two wishes are already fulfilled — he will stay with Sheehan for about a week during the holiday season — he needs help for his third wish. Instead of credit cards, donations and gift cards for leisure activities are requested.
Minkow was born in Brooklyn, where he attended a public school for a couple of years before he transferred to a private Catholic school in New York, followed by another private Catholic school in Pennsylvania.
Once his family moved to South Florida, he also moved into the Hope Center. That was 33 years ago. Here he has made friends and settled into a happy life. Sheehan hopes he will stay at the center. Through the organization, he has grown to be independent.
“He is pretty much self-reliant. He manages. In the other places he was treated like a child. Now he is treated like an adult, which is what he is,” said Sheehan, adding that he made a big accomplishment by successfully transferring from the Hope Center dorms to the nonprofit’s apartments where residents are more independent.
“I don’t want to uproot him. He is very happy there.”