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Group funds internships for the disabled

It’s late afternoon on a hot summer day and the cafeteria at Baptist Hospital is buzzing and clanking with workers preparing patients’ dinner trays. Oblivious to the commotion around her, Anastacia Mcloud, in hairnet and gloves, is plopping large spoonfuls of yellow rice, topped by chicken, on plate after plate after plate.

“She’s really in the zone,” jokes her boss, Stan Hodes, manager of dining services. “When she’s doing something, she really concentrates.”

And that’s a good thing. It was her ability to get the work done under pressure that got her the job on the serving line after she interned for four months at the Kendall hospital. Mcloud, 22, of Florida City, is one of a handful of young adults with physical and developmental disabilities who have been given the opportunity to work through the Miami-Dade EmployAbility Network.

Formerly known as the Miami-Dade Business Leadership Network, the volunteer group has established an internship program that reimburses business partners 100 percent of an intern’s earnings, up to a maximum of 240 hours. The only requirement? The intern must be a disabled person. The intent is to educate businesses on the employability of the disabled while also providing an avenue of employment for interns.

“The idea,” says Bob Bromberg, the founding president of MDEAN, “is to push beyond the reluctance that some companies have because they can’t afford to hire. We provide the money so companies can do this.”

The network, made up of human resource executives and labor lawyers, made its first placements in 2007 at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics. The three interns worked in data entry and as staff assistants. All three were hired after the internship ended. Since then, Bromberg figures that the organization has worked with 30 employers and placed more than 60 interns, some of whom eventually were hired permanently.

Employers cover a broad cross-section of industries. There’s Baptist Health, of course, but also Lehman Brothers, Terremark Worldwide, United Way, Seaboard Marine, Publix and some law firms. One second-year University of Miami law school student with a physical disability who interned at Holland & Knight through the MDEAN program landed a coveted summer associate internship at the law firm during his third school year. The law firm chose not to seek payroll reimbursement so the EmployAbility Network could use those funds for another internship.

Though getting hired is every intern’s dream, the experience of working in a real-world situation can be just as valuable, says Iliana Castillo-Frick, a Miami Dade College vice provost who serves as MDEAN’s current president.

“They gain the opportunity to see what it’s really like on the job,” adds Castillo-Frick, “and they also get more confidence from the experience.”

That certainly holds true for Mcloud. “I learn patience, responsibility and getting along with other employees,” she says.

Though she likes the work — fixing salads, prepping food, arranging trays — she particularly enjoys the camaraderie with the other workers.

“Everybody encourages me and they tell me, ‘Good job.’ If I make a mistake, they show me how to do it right.”

Another intern, Duane Chin Loy, worked in the supply chain department at the hospital, assisting with such tasks as sterilizing towels. Though he wasn’t offered a job — no openings were available — the 29-year-old from Cutler Bay hopes that he’ll get an offer when a position comes up.

“I love working here,” he says. “It’s the best place, like one big family. Everything is organized and I like that.”

Chin Loy, who has cerebral palsy, thinks the Baptist experience, along with a vocational diploma in medical billing from Miami Dade College, will improve his chances of landing a job somewhere. His father, Douglas, agrees. “He’s a hard worker. He just needs the experience and the opportunity.”

Providing opportunity is MDEAN’s main goal. “We know how hard it is to find jobs these days,” Castillo-Frick says. “Having some work experience on your résumé can certainly help.”

It helped Jehu “J.J.” Pierre. He now works part-time for DeMoya Construction. Before that, he worked at Shake-a-Leg, a sailing and water sports center for at-risk and disabled youth.. His favorite task in his new job: operating the roller, a machine that flattens and evens out the road. But he also puts cones out to reroute traffic, digs when needed and picks up trash before leaving a construction site.

“It makes me feel good to work,” says the 22-year-old from Perrine. “I feel independent. I can work with no boss being around, too.”

To identify interns, the EmployAbility Network partners with various agencies, including Goodwill Industries, Best Buddies and Miami-Dade Public Schools. Like all prospective employees, the interns go through the regular hiring process, including interviews and testing. Employers are also coached about how to integrate workers with physical or development disabilities into work areas. To provide support, a job coach visits work sites.

At Baptist’s dining services, Hodes supervises three other disabled employees in addition to Mcloud. One was voted employee of the year by her peers. “They’re 100 percent productive,” he says of those employees. “And they’re a good influence on other workers.”

Mcloud, he adds, fits right in. “She always has a smile on her face no matter what she’s doing.”

The EmployAbility Network has no staff or office. The funds raised at its annual cocktail party go straight to the internship program. It recently began funding student internships at the Learning Experience School, an education center for the developmentally disabled in Miami, so students can learn administrative and office skills before they graduate. MDEAN is also partnering with Miami Dade College to provide seed funding for disabled students who want to start their own businesses.

Mcloud knows that her new job is a chance of a lifetime. “I feel very lucky I got a job,” she says. “Lots of people are just struggling to get one, but not me. I got one.”