HERMISTON - As Marty Williams walked through the aisle at the ACE Hardware store in Hermiston earlier this week, proudly wearing his red work vest, other employees stopped what they were doing to yell out their hellos.
A big grin on his face, Williams, also known to his co-workers as the "ACE Warrior," walked to the back of the store to the janitorial closet and readied the equipment he would need to both clean the store's two bathrooms and sweep its floors.
Williams, 38, has Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes characteristics such as shortness and mental retardation.
He is a part-time employee at the hardware store, working two hours a day, five days a week. The job means the world to him.
"He was almost depressed before hand," said his mother, Barbara Williams. "The minute he started working at the store, it was an overnight thing, boom. He was so excited, laughing and joking and smiling. It's made a young man of him."
For Williams and about 50 other Umatilla County residents with disabilities ranging from the physical to the psychiatric, having a job means independence, "normality," a social life. But the journey to get there is rough and exhausting. It takes a handful of state and county workers pounding the pavement, financial incentives funded by tax payers, and open-minded employers.
And, sometimes, even that isn't enough. More than 70 people are still on waiting lists with the county's workforce development specialists. How many more desire a job is unknown. Enrollment for the programs is full; no more applications are being taken. Jobs must first be found for those on the list, or the grant money funding the program will run out this summer.
Workforce Development Specialist Heidi Eidler, one who has been job-hunting for those on the waiting list, says the hunt goes much like any other, with persistence and persuasion. On top of the traditional job hunting trials, however, Eidler must overcome stereotypes, as well as convince employers that they face no added liability, and no added costs by offering a job to someone with a disability.
The disabilities can range from Down Syndrome to depression to a mental illness to a learning disability.
"I think very many employers are scared," Eidler said.
Mike Pangle, 51, doesn't think. He knows.
Pangle works at the offices of CAPECO as a janitor and as a bus driver. He has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, also known as ADHD, but didn't find out until about 10 years ago when the school tested his youngest son for it. For much of his life, Pangle's disability seemed invisible, his constant breaks of employment consistent with a wild youth - until he wanted to follow a dream and become a truck driver. He was aware that he acted differently than others that he worked with, but back then he thought people acted strange with him because his education wasn't very good.
Then one day he went on a test drive with another trucker, the final step in an interview process to getting the job.
"When we would stop on deliveries, I would get out of the truck and try to help unload the truck. I'm very animated when I speak, I do a lot of eye contact," Pangle said. "Some people find that threatening I guess. I also talk too much. I can't sit still."
In fact, Pangle said, because of his hyperactivity, many of his past employers suspected he was on metamethaphine. The test results would always come back negative, baffling them, he said.
That day of the test drive, however, Pangle watched from afar the trucker he had driven with as the man explained to Pangle's potential boss his experience.
"The test driver was waving his arms and legs, like a robot ... they said they would get back to me."
"They" never did.
The hesitancy of employers to hire someone too different is not unknown to Matthew Studer, a vocational coordinator with the Milton-Freewater-based Horizon Project Inc. He works out of the Hermiston office, and is responsible for getting Williams his job at the hardware store.
It's not easy to convince employers, he said. There are a lot of barriers, including a reluctance to hire anyone with "weird" social behaviors. Commonly those include talking a lot and hugging strangers, for instance.
But for Studer, the work involved in finding the disabled jobs is worth the effort, he said, for them and for the community.
"To me, it's a gauge of how civilized we are, how we treat the weakest people in society," Studer said. "I feel a real moral responsibility and obligation to help the ones who can do work."
At the hardware store where Williams works, Manager Randy Smith said he has a relative in a wheelchair, and that may have made him more open to the idea of employing Williams at first, nearly a year ago.
Studer's presence as a job coach for Williams also did much to build Smith's confidence, Smith said.
For the first few months, grant money paid Williams' pay check. After six months, which is when the grant funding stopped, Smith decided to hire Williams part-time.
"I told Matt a hundred times that we get more out of Marty than he gets out of us," Smith said. "It's something greater than selling hardware."
For Barbara Williams, seeing her son in the work force is a sight that can't be outdone.
"It's real exciting," she said. "We're not always going to be here. He needs his own nucleus of friends."