Sometimes all a guy needs is a chance to prove himself.
Consider the case of Eric Virgil.
Virgil, 42, was born with an intellectual disability that makes learning, problem solving and reasoning a challenge. He has his own apartment but needs 24-hour support. The Pendleton man worked in a sheltered workshop for many years, but dreamed of having a regular job in the community. A little more than a year ago, he applied for a part-time custodian position at Sunridge Middle School.
District Facility Manager Ken Lebsock, on the hiring panel, listened to the pitch with interest. The plan was that Virgil would work with the help of his job coach at Horizon Project to keep him on track. Virgil had previous janitorial experience with Horizon Project.
“The job fit his abilities,” Lebsock said. “We knew there would be a few challenges, but with the job coach, we felt comfortable with him.”
Virgil got to work. For the past year, he has cleaned one of the building’s wings with the zeal of gold miner who has discovered the motherlode.
Virgil is a cheerful soul, a black belt in karate who loves the Portland Trail Blazers. On a recent day, he arrived at school shortly before the final bell. He and job coach Chris Humphrey weaved their way around students as they headed to the janitor’s closet. Virgil wore an emerald green Sunridge shirt, a Portland Trail Blazer hat, boots and a walkie talkie clipped to cargo pants.
Virgil inspected his cart, a rolling cache of cleaning chemicals, stainless steel polish, a pumice stick, rags, broom, mop, feather duster, garbage bags, gloves, paper towels and a spray can containing gum remover. Humphrey stood nearby watching closely.
“There’s only one roll of toilet paper,” he nudged Virgil. “Better grab more.”
The custodian nodded and fetched a couple more rolls from a shelf.
Humphrey, as an aide assigned to Virgil by his employer, Horizon Project, accompanies Virgil everywhere, not just to work. When Virgil heads to school, Humphrey goes too.
The pair got going down the long corridor. First stop was Mr. Jacob’s wood shop. In the expansive room filled with woodworking equipment, Virgil consulted a flip chart hooked to his cart. The card said “garbage” and “mop” with drawings of a garbage can and a dust mop and “time — 15 minutes.” Virgil set the timer on his cart for 15 minutes and got to work. He finished just as the timer’s alarm sounded.
And so it went with Humphrey giving an occasional direction or compliment. Virgil cleaned the weight room and then beelined for Mrs. Sickels’ art room where he again dust mopped and emptied the trash. Eight classrooms, two locker rooms, two bathrooms and a long corridor later, Virgil clocked out after four hours on the job.
Before the hiring of Virgil, Lebsock visited with Sunridge Principal Dave Williams to confer.
“He came and said, ‘This is the right person. He can do the job,’” Williams recalled.
Williams said he doesn’t regret the hiring decision, calling it a classic win-win. Virgil gets the fulfillment of working hard and earning a paycheck. Sunridge gets a clean school and the satisfaction of helping a man realize his potential.
Earlier this month, Williams and the district’s director of business services, Michelle Jones, traveled to Wilsonville to accept an award from The Arc Oregon, which supports and advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The award goes to a business or individual employing a person with an intellectual disability for at least a year and elevating the person’s independence, integration and participation in the community. Virgil nominated the school.
Williams, who called the award “humbling,” said Virgil has more than proved he can do the job. The principal said he can set a clock by the custodian who walks by his office to punch in each day. Often they chat about the Blazers. The contact inevitably leaves Williams smiling.
“Every bone in his body is happy,” the principal said. “He’s the nicest man.”
Virgil said said likes custodial work and the predictability of each day’s routine.
“It’s a good job,” he said. “I work hard. The kids are really friendly. The principal likes me.”
Lebsock, the facilities manager, said the other three Sunridge custodians deserve some kudos, too, for showing Virgil the ropes and stepping in occasionally when he gets overwhelmed.
“It’s a real team up there,” Lebsock said. “They deserve credit for helping in Eric’s success.”
Virgil’s mom gets emotional when she thinks about her son’s journey.
“It took a long time for him to get community employment,” said Jan Schroth. “I had actually kind of given up on it because he needed so much support.”
She worried that if her son got a job, he might not be successful and she wondered how that could affect him.
She gets a little teary thinking of how well it has worked out.
“I’m really grateful to the Pendleton School District,” Schroth said. “They are a good example to the community that this can work.”
Paula Boga, executive director of the Arc Oregon, called Sunridge a leader.
“There are a lot of employers around the state who are not willing to do what they did,” Bogle said.
“Their willingness to make that work is good for others to see.”
Having a paycheck has made Virgil’s life richer. He loves to travel with his mother and stepfather, Bob Schroth.
Recently, the family vacationed in the Caribbean.
“He pays his way,” Jan Schroth said. “We let him pick the place.”