Best Buddies helps disabled woman find long-term success with job at Miami law firm

Barbara Torres and Bob Friedman with Cristen Maxwell and Otis Brown, fellow Holland & Knight employees from offices in other states. All four attended a recent Best Buddies leadership conference.
Barbara Torres and Bob Friedman with Cristen Maxwell and Otis Brown, fellow Holland & Knight employees from offices in other states. All four attended a recent Best Buddies leadership conference.

At 8 in the morning, four days a week, Barbara Torres climbs on a bus, then boards a train, and thereafter catches a trolley, before arriving at the Brickell law offices of Holland & Knight around 10. Two-hour commute completed, she stocks the kitchen, shares laughs with coworkers, sets up the conference rooms for meetings, and visits her boss to catch up at the end of the day. When her work is done, Torres reverses the three-segmented journey to get back home.

Like many others, Torres toils in the hospitality and client services department at a law office. She’s put aside the fact that she has an intellectual disability, that she’s served Holland & Knight for more than 20 years now — she will mark 21 years on the job this December.

Torres and her boss, Robert Friedman, recently attended the 2015 Best Buddies Leadership Conference in Bloomington, Indiana. Best Buddies is an organization that focuses on friendships and opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). More than 1,500 high school students attended the Best Buddies Leadership Conference, including presidents of Best Buddies high school chapters. Florida had the largest state representation. Many Miami-Dade County high schools were present, including Coral Gables Senior High, Krop, Miami Beach, Coral Reef and Miami Country Day.

On July 17, all 1,500 high school students, along with another 500 college students and buddies, watched as Torres received the Best Buddies’ Employee of the Year award by the organization’s founder, Anthony Kennedy Shriver of Miami Beach. Friedman, a Best Buddies board member, stood beside her, beaming, as the crowd rose for a standing ovation.

Torres is one of the first people to find work through the Best Buddies Job Program, and continues to be one of its most exemplary successes.

“I talk to people and I make them smile,” said Torres, when asked about her relationship with her coworkers.

For many people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, finding a job is often hard, as employers tend to shy away from hiring people with disabilities. For Friedman, however, who linked Holland & Knight and Best Buddies years ago, their decision to hire Torres has been one he has never regretted. They’ve worked together for two decades now, and they have been buddies for nearly as many.

“It’s a win-win-win when a company like Holland & Knight hires an employee with an intellectual disability. A win for the employee, because now an individual who might be staying home all day has a job, develops a feeling of self-worth, is making money, paying taxes, getting out of the house and making friends and coworkers. It’s a win for the employer, who gets a really dedicated, hardworking, committed employee. It’s a great thing to have an employee like Barbara who does the job perfectly, and by herself. And the third win is for the community, because in our community we all try to help each other, and by employing a person with intellectual disability the community wins because we are showing we care about each other,” Friedman said.

One of Best Buddies’ missions is to promote acceptance of and prevent prejudice against people with IDD. Torres succeeds by demonstrating what should be the norm for people with disabilities.

“When we put our buddies in the right job, they do it better than anybody else. They bring diversity to the job, and make the business better, happier, and successful. Barbara, for example, is a star. She works with an enormous energy, enthusiasm, and always has a smile on her face,” said Shriver, who has known both Torres and Friedman more than 20 years.

Over her years at Holland & Knight, Torres has outlasted many of her coworkers, made many friends, and gotten to know the law firm’s roughly 200 employees in Miami. Asked what her favorite part of working at Holland & Knight is, she glanced shyly at Friedman.

“You can say it,” said Friedman, with a smile, nodding gently. Torres looked back at me with a sheepish grin.

“Payday,” she giggled.