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A Job for Sarah
Can a mildly retarded young woman find success and independence greeting shoppers at Lowe's?

By Michael Leahy
Sunday, April 18, 2004

The job was this: part-time telephone receptionist, 10 hours a week. Were it up to Sarah Cacciaglia, she would keep the job for a long time, so comfortable did she feel around the same friendly faces each day. But her stint here at Melwood, an Upper Marlboro-based nonprofit organization that provides services to people with disabilities, likely would be brief.

Sarah's file said she suffered from mild mental retardation and anxiety disorder. The receptionist job was a test of sorts, to see if, at 22, she could handle steady employment that included a modicum of pressure. If she performed well here, it would encourage her parents and her counselors enough to coax Sarah to set her sights higher.

The job required her to answer the main phone line and connect calls. There were about 60 extensions at the facility, far too many for even the regular receptionist to commit to memory, so Sarah was always equipped with a sheet listing employees' extension numbers. The training had gone fairly well -- but no one, least of all Sarah's mother, believed that there would not be several hurdles and bouts of anxiety still to come.

On a mid-February weekday, Sarah entered the quiet, cool receptionist's room alone, the regular receptionist having gone off for lunch. She began answering the phone, which rang, on average, about every half-minute.

"Melwood. May I help you? . . . Okay."

She hit a button, then hit the three-button extension, hit another button and hung up the phone, her task complete.

The job looked easy at first glance. Melwood's receptionist post is a white-walled room devoid of demands and yammering. It sits just off the lobby, but if there is no foot traffic, which is generally the case, it has the feel of a den. Sarah sat with her hands calmly folded in her lap. The phone rang again and she hit an extension, hung up, and the phone did not ring for an eternity that lasted probably two minutes.

Sarah had time to leaf through a copy of People magazine, slowly scanning an item about Jennifer Aniston. The phone rang, and just as she picked it up, another line rang. Suddenly the phone was ringing incessantly, a new call coming every 10 seconds or so. She would no sooner pick up the phone to greet one caller and begin making the necessary extension connection than it would be ringing again -- one ring, two rings, three rings -- the very kind of pressure to which her supporters believed she was most vulnerable.

Sarah remained in control, but here was the real surprise: She was using no sheet. She consulted nothing to obtain the employees' proper extension numbers. She just hit buttons, having absorbed most of the 60 or so three-digit extensions simply in the course of working the previous two months.

A call came for a man whom the caller identified only as "Bobby," the caller apologizing, saying he had no last name.

Sarah assumed rightly that the caller wanted Bobby Barney, reachable in Melwood's maintenance department at extension 267 or extension 429.

The next caller asked for Tom.

Thom McCarty, director of residential services, extension 243.

And so on.

She hit more buttons for the next 20 minutes. Then a grinning woman came back to ask her a couple of sociable questions: "Sarah, did you see where all that chocolate went? Did Don run off with that? I'd like to get a piece."

An employee had brought in a little chocolate, apparently to share with office mates. The woman went on, one comrade joking to another: "Did you see? That really looked good. I'd really like some. Where did it go, Sarah? You got to tell me."

Sarah looked frozen. "I don't know."

The woman was mock-exasperated, laughing. "Don got the chocolate, didn't he? That Don. You can tell me."

Sarah's arms started flapping, penguin-like. Her voice was a little breathy, on the verge of hyperventilating. She sounded equal parts friendly and flustered. "I d-d-don't know." She laughed, not a real laugh, anxious now. "I don't. Really. How should I know?"

The employee paused, studying her, smiling sweetly, her voice softer now. "Okay, sweetheart. Well, I'll bring you some if I find it, okay?"

Sarah nodded, taking a breath, relaxing.

So here was the challenge: Change sometimes threw her. Any alteration in routine, job task or expectation might produce the flapping, that quavering voice, the doubt. "I'm best with repetitive things," she says regularly, suffused with awareness about her intellectual and behavioral shortcomings. Such self-awareness always threatened to compound an already-high level of anxiety. Newcomers had to learn to introduce change slowly to Sarah.

Another employee appeared, reminding Sarah where certain calls should be routed. "Monica is at her usual extension, uh -- " The employee looked stumped for the number.

Sarah helped her out, demonstrating her prowess with the extensions again, back in her comfort zone. "Two-seventy."

The phone rang, again and again. The regular receptionist was coming back from her lunch hour now. It was the end of Sarah's one-hour shift, and everyone complimented her on another smooth day.

But she was still frazzled slightly by a question from half an hour earlier. "I really don't know where that chocolate is," Sarah mumbled, flapping slightly.

THE FILE ON SARAH CACCIAGLIA CHARACTERIZES HER PROBLEM as twofold, or, in shrink-speak, as consisting of two "axes." Axis one is her mild mental retardation. Axis two refers to her anxiety disorder. She has an "IQ performance" score of 65, a "verbal IQ" of 80 and a "full-scale IQ" score, or an overall score of sorts, of 71. "This is just within the borderline level of intellectual functioning," notes a psychologist's evaluation in Sarah's file.

All along, axis one, with that description -- mild -- inspired the confidence of Sarah's job trainers and various employment counselors at Melwood. When Sarah and her family first sought the agency's services last year, the Melwood staff envisioned several jobs that Sarah might be able to fill in the community, near her family's home in Waldorf.

But once in a while Sarah's world spun on her axes, and one day last October axis two flipped. Stressed, having had too much of general job training with computers and manuals, worried that she wasn't performing as well as expected, Sarah blurted what you were never supposed to say to the Melwood trainers: She did not want to work. She could tell by their silence that this was not good. Everyone wanted her to work, or at least wanted her to want to work. There was really no point in trying to train her, the counselors believed, if Sarah did not wish to work.

The thought of a job away from her family, particularly a job in which she might fail and her bosses might be disappointed, terrified her. Whenever upset or anxious about anything, she shows the effects quickly: Her arms do their penguin thing, flapping involuntarily; her voice becomes fast, high-pitched, breathy, shaky.

By the training session's end that day, she just wanted Mom. Mom was coming to pick her up in the family van. Summer and Cindy, her dogs, would be home and looking forward to playing with her, she told herself; she just wished to get home -- the home where she had lived all her life and never wished to leave. She didn't want to do outside work ever. A psychologist had once noted her comfort at home, wondering in Sarah's file whether it actually gave her less incentive for stepping out into the world and taking a job. Her behavior now only heightened the suspicion. Sarah thought about the things she wanted to do at home that day. Her 11-year-old sister, Courtney, would be returning from school soon. She'd see Summer and Cindy, then do the chores Mom gave her -- vacuuming and dusting, cleaning the dishes and sweeping the floor, doing laundry and feeding the dogs -- before she relaxed by playing her video games, watching her favorite TV cartoons or drawing her favorite Japanese animation characters.

Mom picked her up. Sarah sat quietly on the ride home. Once inside the house, having been made aware of the new problem by the Melwood counselors, Sarah's mother asked what was wrong. Sarah's voice cracked. She said she didn't know whether she could do a job. I'll be nervous, I won't know anybody. What happens if I do bad? I don't want to do this. She began sobbing.

Sarah's mom, Dolores Cacciaglia, reminded her that she had fared just fine in a brief cleaning and maintenance job at a school the previous summer. Then she said what her daughter did not want, did not expect, to hear: "Sarah, the idea of not working is not an option here. Working is part of the normal course of events at 22. Everybody has to face it. You get a job or you go to school. You can't stay home with me. That's not an option. I want the same thing for you that anybody your age has: a chance to work, a chance to progress."

Mother and daughter talked a long time that day. Her father had spoken to her, too. Like his wife, David Cacciaglia -- who is a part owner of a high-tech company that provides services to the satellite industry -- wanted his daughter to have a full life: a job, a measure of fulfillment, a group of friends, and a home apart from her parents. He viewed outside work and a social life as inextricably linked -- keys to Sarah's independence and happiness. Perhaps, he thought, she would live in a group home, becoming close to the other residents. Whatever else, he wanted her to become self-sufficient, so as to be able to take care of herself and be happy after he and his wife died.

From the perspective of Sarah's family, the Melwood job was always understood to be temporary, a steppingstone hopefully. And yet, beyond the receptionist job, what looked manageable for her?

Three years ago, standardized testing revealed that she was severely impaired in her ability to concentrate and retain information quickly -- in the bottom 2 percent of Americans tested. When it came to understanding verbal abstractions, such as an ability to grasp instructions, she was in the bottom fifth. Her visual analytical ability was in the bottom 1 percent. She never had been able, for instance, to use a combination lock during her days in the Charles County public school system. She could memorize numbers, but her arithmetic skills were inside the bottom 1 percent. She didn't know the exact test results, but she understood perfectly that the tests, and life, had demonstrated all the areas where she could be tripped up.

Conversely, some of the tests revealed where she had a chance. Having graduated in 2000 from a special education program at McDonough High School, in Pomfret, Md., Sarah possessed reading skills at about the average high school level. She could read Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, taking her place as a lover of pop culture. She could read banners in a store, and aisle markers, and nearly all the words on any product packaging, so she knew where to find things. Her remote memory, memory stored gradually and not needing to be processed immediately -- 63rd percentile was an underestimate of her ability, if anything -- had proved useful in the receptionist job; maybe it could be of use again. And she had discipline when presented with a goal she wanted to reach, the proof of which could be found in her steady 10-year rise to the rank of first-degree black belt in karate. Still, all those disparate traits yielded only a puzzle.

By early February, Deborah Hampton, a Melwood job developer, had taken a look at Sarah's assets, observed her in training and envisioned her as a store greeter. "She could read the training booklets, she could identify the parts of the store, she had a nice smile and she could master instructions, if given the time," Hampton said. "So that's what we were going for. We looked at Lowe's in Waldorf."

Hampton already had landed a job there for one Melwood client, a 26-year-old man who had been loading purchased items into customers' vehicles for several months by then, doing well enough to have quickly earned his first raise. His success would ease the way for Sarah. The time came for the first interview. Hampton stressed the importance of good eye contact, which is sometimes a problem for Sarah. In addition to leaving her with cognitive disabilities, complications before and during Sarah's birth had left her with an involuntary eye movement, a wiggling of sorts, that forces her to cock and maneuver her head to keep an image focused -- not unlike staring out of a speeding train at the landscape rushing by. The result is that she generally appears to be looking at people not directly in their eyes but at a point low on their foreheads. So Sarah would need to do her best to maintain eye contact -- and smile; everyone agreed she had a very pleasant smile.

Now Sarah had new employee manuals supplied by Lowe's to study, one of which detailed how to be a greeter -- the smile, the distance at which to begin greeting the customer, the various possibilities for a greeting. What seemed an instinctive act had been rendered into a several-part thing, its complexity certain to breed a touch of doubt in Sarah. On the positive side, the manual's specificity could leave no doubt as to what was expected. To absorb its content would likely go a long way toward making Sarah feel ready for the first day. Sarah's mother asked her, "Did you read the book?"

"Yes, Mom."

"Have you read it?"

Her father had been asking whether she was prepared, too. She felt on overload.

"Yes, Mom."

"What kind of suggestions did it have?" her mother pressed.

"I don't know." Sarah's arms started flapping hard -- side to side at first, but then in front of her, like someone in deep water trying to dog-paddle. "I don't know. How would you expect I'd know? I don't know. I read it. I'll be fine. We don't have to read it."

"Sarah, I'm just trying -- "

"Mommmm."

Dolores Cacciaglia nodded, stopping, knowing when to pull back. Sarah walked across the room and turned on the television.

THROUGHOUT THE 1990S, several Lowe's stores in the Washington area hired people with an array of disabilities, including mental retardation. With more than 150,000 employees in 950 stores in 45 states, Lowe's has never had a corporate policy encouraging the employment of people with disabilities, nor has it compiled exact counts of such hires. Instead, over the years, word simply has made its way around Lowe's stores about the general success of the new employees, a message that Melwood counselors convey to Lowe's outlets as well. Impressed by the experience of their clients at Lowe's stores in such places as Bowie and Clinton, Melwood bestowed its Employer of the Year award upon Lowe's last year. By then, the governors of Illinois, California and North Carolina also had recognized Lowe's work with people with disabilities.

Lowe's officials downplay talk of any social outreach, preferring instead to emphasize the business imperative of finding reliable workers in a labor pool they view as shrinking. "We're planning to add more than 70,000 new jobs [nationally] in the next three years," says Darryl Henderson, a Lowe's vice president. "We can't afford to overlook any individual . . . We want to snare talent, including individuals with disabilities." Other businesses, big and small, near Melwood's headquarters have adopted a similar approach. The Waldorf Holiday Inn employs 10 Melwood clients, who serve as crews cleaning rooms and making beds, five days a week. The Red Lobster restaurant in Waldorf has three Melwood people on its staff, performing tasks that include washing dishes and wrapping silverware in napkins. A local country club employs a pair of disabled workers; a tool company has employed one Melwood client for years.

At the International House of Pancakes in Forestville, owner Frank Coombs has employed more than 25 disabled workers since 2000. Currently, seven of Coombs's 103 employees are disabled, including three men with cognitive disabilities working as dishwashing machine operators. Coombs sees hiring the disabled as a smart business decision. "There's a lot of [employee] turnover in a business like this," he says, "and people with disabilities seem to stay in these jobs longer. That means fewer hiring decisions, fewer distractions. They want to be there, and they're anxious to be trained, and very focused . . . It's good business for me."

Not all employers are as easily persuaded. "The most difficulty comes when management changes somewhere," says Deborah Goins, a Melwood official. "Then you often face the task of having to educate and enlighten new management about the abilities of our [clients]. But that's what we've always done."

Melwood was born in 1963, the creation of a group of area residents determined to provide training and employment opportunities for their disabled children, whose public education had reached an end in an era when additional help for them was scant. The new private social agency reflected a wave of national interest that had been growing since the early 1950s, before which work was seldom an option for Americans with cognitive disabilities. Stigmatized, confined to shadows, often viewed as their families' dark secrets, they generally idled away their lives in institutions or relatives' homes. In the 1950s, the number of so-called sheltered workshops grew -- "sheltered" because they kept people with disabilities, who performed tasks like putting buttons on garments or bagging advertising fliers, separate from the customers and co-workers presumed to be insensitive and leery of them to varying degrees.

While presenting an opportunity to work and earn money, "sheltered" also meant that the disabled were segregated. But emboldened by the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, advocates for the disabled increasingly spoke up for their friends and loved ones -- a caste with few legal protections in the workplace or public education.

Change came slowly. Ultimately, federal legislation mandated an education tailored to the needs of children with disabilities, and, in 1990, the Americans With Disabilities Act declared that workers like Sarah Cacciaglia couldn't be denied an equal opportunity to compete for jobs.

Today, there are more than a dozen private social service agencies like Melwood in Maryland alone, and hundreds across the country servicing people with disabilities, including more than 7 million retarded Americans. But, in the workplace, the advancement of people with physical and cognitive disabilities remains an incremental process. As Melwood's figures reflect, the vast majority of people with cognitive disabilities who find employment outside sheltered workplaces generally still work alongside others with disabilities. Critics like Lorraine Sheehan, president of the Arc of the United States, an advocacy group for the disabled, argue that this limits chances for the disabled to learn from mainstream workers.

The goal of advocates is to move people with disabilities into jobs alongside people without disabilities. As of late February, only 117 of the 1,777 people with disabilities whom Melwood serves worked in such jobs, according to the agency's records. Sarah Cacciaglia was trying to become No. 118.

On the eve of Sarah's final interview at Lowe's, Melwood executive Deborah Goins acknowledged that, even assuming Sarah landed the job as a greeter, no one knew how far she would progress. No one could be certain how she would respond to all the new faces around her, and the expectations. "All her life -- even during her [receptionist] job at Melwood -- she's been training or working around people paid to serve her and other people with disabilities," Goins says. "This will be a whole new world for her."

SARAH LOOKED SERENE in the hours leading to the interview. The only tension she betrayed was while standing in the parking lot, licking her lips unconsciously. Then, alongside Melwood's Deborah Hampton, she walked into the store in her dark suit with dark shoes and a white blouse. She stopped at a small office where the sales manager, the final interviewer, waited for the two women. Seeing him, Sarah sighed, licked her lips and managed a smile.

He wore a name tag: John.

John Helmick had a matter-of-fact, easy manner. He had done volunteer work as a teenager for a group assisting people with disabilities. His smile said this was going to be painless. Even before Sarah had fully arranged herself in a chair, he began by asking if she had any questions of him.

Hampton had warned her about this possibility, saying that employers liked candidates to come armed with their own questions.

It was the moment her short legs began swinging, nervously. She is just 4-feet-7, and when she sits in a normal adult chair, her legs dangle like a child's. Simultaneously, she was lightly patting the top of her short, dark hair. But if jittery, she was also ready. "What is the dress code?" Sarah asked.

He told her she could wear jeans, even a T-shirt, just as long as it didn't have -- Sarah cut him off. "No bad language?" He smiled, shrugged. "Right. Well, I meant more that you're not wearing anything promoting anything."

"Where do I report? Do I work with anybody?"

"You report to the head cashier . . . Our person in Returns is 10 feet away if you have any questions for her."

"But I don't have to ask her questions," Sarah mumbled, seemingly to herself. Her head cocked upward, her eyes adjusting, focusing on Helmick. She smiled. "May I ever leave to go to the bathroom?"

He nodded. "Yes. We're all human. If you need to go, don't hold it."

Now he had a question for her. "What do you think you're worth?"

"I work very hard and very good," she said. "I do listen very good. Very good."

He nodded. "I'll make it easy. We're going to pay you $8 an hour."

Hampton had been hoping for $8.50, but she'd take $8 for Sarah.

Sarah was hired. Hampton grinned, but Sarah only sighed and smiled slightly. Helmick turned to Hampton and repeated the hiring particulars: Sarah would be, for the moment, a part-time employee, ineligible for company health benefits until she rose to become a full-time employee. She would begin by generally working four days a week, from 7 to 11 a.m., with the likelihood that she would be asked to work some overtime and an occasional weekend. The work would include some watering of plants as she became more familiar with her greeting duties. The hope and expectation, Helmick assured them, was that Sarah would become a full-time employee.

Oh. Helmick leaned back. Staring hard at Sarah, he wanted to share one last expectation he had. "If I need to go on a dark street, you'll give me protection." He pantomimed a little karate move.

Sarah laughed. It was over.

Hampton and Dolores Cacciaglia, who had been waiting in a Lowe's aisle, beamed on their way out. "I'm so proud of you," Dolores said to Sarah, who was subdued. While the three women walked down an aisle full of ladders, Hampton spotted another of her clients, Stephen Kaldenbach, the first of the Melwood trainees to land a job at the store. Pushing four carts, Stephen paused to walk over and give a hearty hello to Sarah.

Sarah nodded and smiled. She was standing in virtually the same spot she would be occupying as a greeter, about 15 feet away from the entrance. "Hi," she said.

"Stephen works here, too," Hampton said to her. "As a loader. Doing a great job."

Stephen nodded, grinned. "Yes, I am."

Hampton went on. "Stephen lives in one of our residential homes."

Sarah said nothing.

"Yes, I do," said Stephen.

"Isn't that nice, Sarah?" said Dolores.

"It's a great home," Stephen boomed.

Sarah said nothing. She was cool to the talk of the residential homes, wondering whether a point was being made. She didn't want to hear talk of her living anywhere but her own home. She said amiably, "Bye, Stephen," and walked quickly toward the refuge of the family van.

TWENTY-SIX-YEAR-OLD STEPHEN KALDENBACH, whose IQ scores are about the same as those of Sarah, and who faces similar challenges, has worked for Lowe's since early November. While many members of a Melwood crew go a lifetime feeling fulfilled in their tasks, finding their reward in group efforts, Stephen had yearned to break out on his own for a long while before landing this job. A high school graduate who emerged from a special education program, he worked on a Melwood mobile crew for two years, then took a part-time job at a lumber yard before landing the Lowe's job, which he celebrated by leaping around in the company parking lot.

His tasks at Lowe's are basic. He retrieves shopping carts strewn around the parking lot. When asked, he pushes customers' carts out of the store, loading items into their vehicles -- lumber and plumbing supplies, flooring, paneling, appliances, whatever proves too heavy for a customer to manage on his own. Depending on the week, Stephen's performance has been judged from satisfactory to very good, earning him a modest raise to $9.32 an hour.

He is as ambitious, animated, scattered, emotionally scarred and adventurous as Sarah is rooted to home, timid, jittery, orderly, beloved and leery. His childhood and early-adult years could scarcely have been more tumultuous, leaving him happy that he has been living with roommates in a Melwood residential home these last four years, away from the "messes" of his early family life. Domestic turmoil, he indicates, was the constant of that period. His parents split, and he has a sister in jail, he says. "I just want to be here," he says, meaning Melwood, "and getting my chance." The chance, he says, is "to have peace and to have things. I want to be able to do a lot and have a lot, be successful. Yes, I do."

His speech is thick, with a touch of an impediment, whereas Sarah's is clear and well modulated. It brings emphasis and urgency to almost everything Stephen says. He speaks regularly of his wants, a preamble to his personal declaration of independence. He aspires to be a department manager at Lowe's, directly responsible for helping customers with their needs and making sales. It is an "average dream in this country," says Stephen, who wants to be regarded as an "average good employee" -- "average" being Stephen's summit, the K2 of things.

Why not? "I'm high-functional," he says, a term that sounds as if it came right out of a sci-fi flick, but that Stephen has heard around job sites over the years. He likes it, views it as a way of dispelling doubts. "I'm very high-functional. The people in my house are high-functional. So I can do things."

He wants to parlay salary increases and a growing respect into what, he imagines, most high-functional, average people possess: a chance to mingle socially on a regular basis with people his own age, to date, someday marry, own a house and car, have children, take a yearly family vacation, be happy and "feel good about myself and my life because everybody should, right?"

In pursuit of these wants, he sometimes has made mistakes. A couple of years ago, Melwood staff judged that he was too aggressive in flirting with young women and even underage girls. He received a warning, and after he was thought to have misbehaved in a store in a separate incident, he lost all his unsupervised time out in the community, though recently he regained a portion of it. Before making it to Lowe's, he had been reprimanded for not doing all his chores around the group home and sometimes shirking his duties as part of a Melwood landscaping crew at Andrews Air Force Base. By all accounts, his last two years have been free of serious difficulties. "I'm trying to do everything right," he says. "I want to prove myself . . . show I can be a great loader, a great average employee, and then do something really big. Like Delivery. If you're in Delivery, it's $10 an hour, I heard. My paycheck would be fat. But I got to do my job good, I gotta be the best average loader I can be."

He moves like an athlete, able to load items into a car one moment, then, at a jog, be pushing half a dozen retrieved carts into the store the next minute. He unloads a toilet seat into a van, a wall oven into an SUV, and a Troy-Bilt portable generator into a pickup truck. Customers thank him -- a few giving him modest tips, while others, having heard him speak and making a guess about his situation, take an extra moment with him.

And, in turn, he sizes them up, distinguishing between the patronizing, from whom he'd rather just get a tip, and those who engage him as casually as they do other employees. These last interactions leave him the happiest.

"Good man," the customer with the toilet seat says, adding, "Cold day, huh? Sheesh. Whoooo. Well, thanks . . . You're very helpful. Best of luck."

"Cool," Stephen responds, grinning. "Thank you."

The man smiles back. "They're lucky to have you."

"That's cool."

He has an easy, winning way with nearly all customers. One day, a man spilled some paint on a new mirror he had just purchased. Stephen took a hose and began washing the paint off, saying to him, "It hasn't dried on the mirror, sir. It's coming all off. It'll be okay."

"I sure hope so."

"It will be. It's cool."

The main challenges for Stephen have been behavioral. Lowe's prohibits the wearing of chains -- chiefly out of a concern that they might become caught in a piece of machinery -- but Stephen continued wearing his long silver chain, even after repeatedly being told about the no-chain rule. His file says that, in his behavior and choice of outfits, Stephen has displayed a tendency toward "grandiosity" -- personnel-speak for flamboyance. A Lowe's supervisor and next a Melwood counselor had to admonish him on several occasions -- at first gently, and then more forcefully -- about the chain before Stephen complied. "I thought it was okay," Stephen explains, "but they kept saying it to me, so I guess it wasn't."

Then there is his occasional wanderlust in the store between tasks, his strolls a function of his ambition. He'll walk by Plumbing, Lumber, Flooring, Paint, Lawn and Garden, Hardware and Inside Seasonal -- and dream. But no one can deny his drive. Often he finds John Helmick just before the end of his shift and asks if there is anything else he would like done. One day, having heard that there was a new task for him and extra money if he performed it, he filled potholes in the parking lot for an hour. "The money will be on my next paycheck," he says. "They told me, 'Good job.' You have to do those kind of things if you want to get a promotion."

Most of the time he takes home a little over $1,100 a month, $680 of which goes for his rent in the Melwood house. He puts money aside for dreams and creature comforts, eyeing a computer in a brochure that he is nearly poised to buy, the machine one more way to launch himself, he figures. "I need to learn," he says, the word sounding mysterious and powerful coming off his tongue. "Math. I want to do better at math. Like six times six is 36, but eight times eight I gotta work on. I can do it. Yes, I can. If you do things right, you can become like an assistant manager. Wouldn't that be cool? Assistant manager. Then zone manager. Yes, I can. I really got a life now. I got support. I go home and see my roommates and they care about me. Everybody does."

His dreams soar a little more with each new customer he pleases. Yet Helmick says no one can know what Stephen's future looks like; it is far too early, and the business is not easy. With so much to learn about tools and technique, there are people who work years on the floor before being ready for a supervisory position, he points out. And there are tests, besides, before anybody even sees a customer. "If Stephen was asked a technical question by a customer, would he sink or swim?" Helmick asks. "Would he go into closed-off mode? He's just getting comfortable. It's probably going to be quite a while before we know how he'll do. But absolutely nothing's impossible. We don't hire people to fail here. And he has exactly the same chance for promotion as anyone else. We just have to see. He's doing very well so far, and we like his enthusiasm."

Unlike Sarah Cacciaglia, Stephen wants more, wants that life he sees the others possess -- the average, as he calls them with no small awe. "I want that," he says, "but I need to keep working hard. I need to be moving up."

ON MONDAY, MARCH 1, Sarah's father dropped her off 15 minutes early for her 7 a.m. start. A Melwood job coach, Sheronda Short, was there to meet her, prepared to spend the entire first week observing and helping her on the job, until she was convinced that Sarah had mastered her tasks. It was like most first days anywhere, low-key, light on expectations, with plenty of allowance for mistakes. Sarah had difficulty punching in on the computer, but she looked nice in her red Lowe's vest, and comfortable in white tennis shoes, smiling at every customer who walked in.

"Good morning," she said, handing out a Lowe's advertising flier to each customer. "Good morning . . . Good morning."

After a while, she broadened her greeting to "Good morning. How are you?"

Some people responded: "Good morning." Or: "Very good. Thank you."

But just as many people seemed not to hear her, simply taking the flier in stride and moving on. A man wearing a baseball cap reached for the flier from her and said to his wife, "Thanks. Look at that: matte latex wall paint -- twenty-two ninety-seven." Excited, he turned back to Sarah. "Thank you, darling."

He caught a better look at her then. Some people seemed tipped off by Sarah's tilted gaze. They'd be walking by and catch her head cocked, her eyes slightly moving, her stare high on their faces. Then they'd pause. The man smiled kindly at her. A few people were patronizing. One woman said in a baby voice, "Thank yewwwww, sweetheart. Thank yewwww, sweetheart."

But the vast majority of customers were normal and friendly -- a seeming reflection of a culture where the sight of a Sarah is not so surprising in a place like this. "Thanks a lot," another man said to her. "Doing a great job there. Hang in."

Still, there were challenges, and she became flustered a few times. "Lookin' for one of them tool knives," a man said.

Sarah had no idea where to point him.

A young woman standing next to Returns jumped in. "Tool World, sir."

Another guy said, "Where do I get me a flag?"

Sheronda Short came to Sarah's aid, pointing to Decorative Flags, just over her shoulder in Seasonal.

The most difficult moments came at the end of the shift, at 11 a.m., when Sarah had trouble punching out on the computer. Short and a Lowe's employee helped her. "Okay, it's SC1 -- now hit Enter, now your password, no, no, not Lowe's, your password," Short said, and as she continued talking about the need to hit F3 and something about a 13 and an F9, Sarah's flapping began, first just a little and then hard. She got red-faced. And then it was done. The first morning seemed behind her, almost. Short said to her, "You did very good. Very good first day. But you want to use your nice voice more. You want to speak louder. Sometimes it was hard to hear you . . . And we'll have you meet some people later in the week. Very important for you to do that. To get out there and mingle. A full life, being happy."

Near the exit, as Dolores Cacciaglia arrived to pick up her daughter, Short gently repeated her earlier advice: "Sarah needs to use her voice a little more."

"You have to project," Dolores said to Sarah.

"Mom . . ."

"You have to listen to Sheronda. She's here to help you."

"No," said Sarah, who did not mean no, she wouldn't do it -- only, no, she didn't want to be hearing this right now; that she knew what she had to do. "Mom, she told me. I know."

Dolores nodded and smiled.

Sarah sighed.

Short said to Sarah, "You did a good job." She turned to Dolores. "She did a really good job."

Sarah looked at both of them and shrugged.

IT WAS STEPHEN'S NIGHT TO MAKE DINNER at the group home. He was making hamburgers and french fries for himself and his three roommates, one of whom would have the chore of cleaning up, while another would take out the trash, and the other would vacuum -- divvying up the tasks, as usual, while being supervised by a live-in counselor. Melwood has 97 people with disabilities living in 34 of its homes, and Stephen lives in a nicely appointed six-bedroom house on an idyllic street in Waldorf.

The idea of a group home was a source of controversy in Waldorf and other communities a couple of decades earlier. Melwood CEO Earl Copus Jr., who built this agency now celebrating its 40th anniversary, remembered the bad days, when some residents sought to block Melwood's creation of group homes in residential neighborhoods, "because they thought their daughters would get molested and their property values would go down . . . Now we have neighbors who are friends of the people in our homes, who do mending for them, bring them over things. It's a different world . . . But as much as we love our residential homes and want to expand them so as to house more people, we also want to get more people who want to do it out in the community living on their own. We want people to be as independent as they want to be, to have complete lives."

Stephen is onboard with that idea. But until he makes any move, he loves it here. He is close to all his housemates, no more so than to 44-year-old David Boyd, who had just arrived home from his own job and gasped when he saw Stephen, then burst into laughter.

"Stephen dyed his hair," Boyd announced.

It was true. Stephen's hair had gone from brown to a tinted reddish brown. Stephen declared it cool.

"Okay, cool," Boyd said, grinning.

Stephen tossed a hamburger, turning awkwardly, grimacing. He hurt himself the day before in the Lowe's parking lot while trying to help a woman who had a shopping cart loaded with boxes of heavy tiles. He tried slowly pushing it toward her vehicle, but its weight had proved to be too much to manage. The cart tipped and several of the boxes landed on his left foot.

"She cursed and cussed me and stuff," Stephen said in a wounded voice. "First time a cart tipped on me like that. It hurt. And all she did was curse me. I had to go to the hospital. Bad bruise. I gotta miss a day."

"Stuff happens, Steve," Boyd said.

Boyd has worked for the last 17 years as a loader at a Safeway market, and he told Stephen that anything that could happen as a loader had happened to him over all his years. He is like a brother to Stephen, the two having lived together for years. Sometimes, if Boyd is late getting home from work, Stephen will stand near a window, looking outside for him, waiting.

"Two hamburgers for me," Boyd said to him.

"Man, I thought you were on a diet."

"God bless America," an exasperated Boyd said. Then he asked: "Did you get your work schedule?"

"Sure did."

"You're good to go."

"How about you, Richard?" Boyd asked another roommate, Richard Daucher, who, at 58, has worked at the Holiday Inn since 1991, making beds and cleaning rooms.

A nod.

"How we doing with those burgers, Mister Chef?" Boyd asked Stephen. "Gonna be next year before I taste a burger."

"Almost ready."

"Knock yourself out."

They rode one another, joked, talked of movies. Everyone liked "The Lord of the Rings." The dinner discussion was not unlike any around a table with a bunch of guys, except when Stephen realized that he had lost his cell phone. "I can't find it, I can't find it," he moaned, gasping. "Maybe I lost it at Lowe's. Maybe it fell out of my pocket."

"Call the store," Boyd suggested. "Right now. Before it closes."

Stephen did. While he waited on the line, he muttered to himself, "Please say somebody found the phone, please say somebody found the phone."

"It'll be okay, Steve," Boyd said softly to him. "It'll be okay. We'll take care of you."

"It'll be okay, Steve," his other roommates said simultaneously.

Stephen looked distraught.

"We'll take care of you," Boyd said.

Stephen looked at them. These four friends were his second family. So if they said it, he knew it was true.

ON FRIDAY MORNING, Sarah was completing her first week on the job. She had arrived at 6:45 a.m. for her 7-to-11 shift and, 10 minutes before she was supposed to begin work, she was already vacuuming the two mats near her post just beyond the automatic sliding doors at the entrance.

"You liking it so far?" asked a pleasant young woman working the Returns booth. She stifled an early morning yawn. "Having an okay time?"

Sarah nodded shyly, smiling. "Uh-huh. It's good."

Her week had steadily improved from that first day. She had mastered the computer punch-in and punch-out, and knew, too, when and how to hand out stickers to customers who entered the store with previously purchased merchandise. "Just so nobody will think you're taking stuff," she said to an elderly man, helping him affix a sticker to an appliance box.

On this day, she was joined not only by Sheronda Short but also by Carole Martin, a "senior greeter" at Lowe's and ex-military. "Sir, I get off at 13-hundred," she said to anyone asking. Martin has been a greeter since 1999, a veteran hand whom Sarah watches open-mouthed, the way a baseball rookie does an all-star center fielder.

"Good morning," Martin said to a customer. "Thank you for shopping at Lowe's today. How are you? Let me know if I can help you with anything."

She had ready answers for questions. "Toolboxes? That'd be Aisle 13. Hardware section. Nuts and bolts around there, too. Yes, sir . . . Leaf bags, right straight out to Outdoor Seasonal. You bet, sir. Thank you for shopping at Lowe's." The customer passed and Martin looked at Sarah. "Something like that. You'll get the hang of it. You're doing great. You'll pick up new things every day."

Sarah spent the rest of the morning emulating Martin, calling out a little louder, more confidently: "Good morning. How are you? Thank you for coming."

Eleven o'clock came, and Sarah did not look eager to leave, lingering, talking a little longer to Martin, who offered to get a cheeseburger with her sometime. Sarah smiled and nodded, changing the subject. She finally said goodbye to Martin, stepping behind Returns to punch out, beginning to make the trek toward her locker. It had been a long walk throughout that first week, throughout her life for that matter, but she knew where she was going now. She walked past Seasonal, past Lighting, past Electrical, past Home Decor and Paint, finally reaching the Storage department, where, on Aisle 14 -- "LADDERS" -- she made a left and walked about 50 yards toward her locker and a bulletin board where, behind a piece of glass, she found the name CACCIAGLIA and saw her schedule for week two.

Then Sarah -- having put her work vest in her locker and proudly sauntered toward the front of the store to meet her mother -- saw Sheronda Short, who had one last request for that week. It was one of those things at once small and huge, at once inconsequential to a job, perhaps, but everything to a life. "Sarah, you did wonderfully this first week -- I wish I had 20 Sarahs -- but I want you to do something for me and something for yourself this weekend," she said. "It's time."

"What?" asked Sarah. "W-w-what?"

Short smiled, leaned down so that she was eye to eye with Sarah. "I want you when you go to church or somewhere, to get yourself a phone number of another person and to give that person a call this coming week. I want you to make a connection with that person. I want you to arrange to get out and do something. Maybe go to a movie sometime. Or to go get an ice cream. Anything. Whatever you want."

"Why?" Sarah mumbled, but the word barely got out, so flustered and scared was she. Her arms flapped and flapped. Her face went crimson. Now she softly whined: "Why?"

Short patted her arm softly. "Because you're a wonderful person, and because you deserve to have a life and friends, and because it's time. This is a little step, the smallest step. You can do it. I believe in you. I will help you. Your mother will help you. But it's time."

Sarah stood back and looked up at the sign that said Seasonal, her gaze lost there, eyes glazed over. "I don't know how to do that."

"You did this, Sarah." Short's hand made a sweeping motion. Like Sarah's parents, she believed that Sarah needed all of it to make any of it good -- that work and a life were linked, the two parts of the same thing. Happiness. Serenity. Pride. Entrance into the world. "You did all of it this week, Sarah. You're going to see that you can do everything else, too. You'll just take the step. It will happen. You deserve it. Just find one person."

Sarah's arms never stopped flapping. She muttered, "That's gonna be hard. I didn't think it was gonna be this . . ." Her voice trailed off. She sighed, her voice quavering. "You know, hard. I'll try, but I don't know."

Then she managed a tight smile. She was at least out of the dark, her expression said. It was the end of week one for Sarah Cacciaglia, American worker

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