SAFETY HARBOR — At a time when the Tampa Bay area is shedding tens of thousands of jobs, Janice Delinko is creating them. And she is giving them to people to whom most employers might not give a second look.
People like Jacob Sare. Thirteen years ago, the Clearwater teen could not speak, use the bathroom by himself, stand up straight or even squeeze a ball. Doctors all but wrote him off and told his parents that "most of these things weren't fixable," said his adoptive father, Scott Sare. "We didn't accept that."
Since September, he has served up Cuban sandwiches, New Orleans po'boys and soups at PB&J's Deli on Main Street, Delinko's restaurant.
"Most people with disabilities are perceived as not knowing anything, not understanding anything," Delinko said. "As you get to know people with disabilities, you know that they understand everything that you say."
For nearly six years, Delinko has run Agape JLD, an agency in Palm Harbor that serves people stricken with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and other disabilities.
About five years ago, she decided she wanted to do more than just provide companion services, respite care and in-home support; she wanted to put disabled people to work. She'd seen employers reject them more times than she could count.
"I always wanted to have a business where I could employ them," she said.
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Oddly, Delinko's ability to give jobs to the disabled grew from a state decision in 2007 to reduce support for them.
"That really cut my income tremendously," she said. "I would guess that it was probably 40 percent of my income, maybe higher."
Delinko opened PB&J's Deli in October 2008. The restaurant allowed her to supplement the lost income and fulfill her dream of putting the disabled to work.
She employs a staff of four. Two are disabled. She finds potential employees through Pinellas County schools or her own agency.
She gives them responsibilities she would give any other employee. They mop, wipe down windows and clean bathrooms.
She pays them the same minimum hourly wage she would pay any other employee: $7.25.
She wants to give them more than a paycheck, though. She wants to give them their independence.
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Now 18, Sare catches a cab from Paul B. Stephens, a public school in Clearwater for children with disabilities, to his job at PB&J's Deli. He works from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. He sweeps floors, buses tables, washes dishes.
"I want to prove to people that people like myself can do a lot of things," said Sare, who is cognitively and developmentally delayed. "People need to see us for what we are. Disabled people work better than anybody."
Delinko has already seen growth.
Sare has learned to budget, balance a checkbook and save. He has learned how to navigate a city on his own. He has learned how to use his cell phone to call ahead if his cab is running late. He has learned about responsibilities and priorities.
A few weeks ago, he had a dilemma: a Christmas party at church fell on the restaurant's busiest day.
"I told him, 'As an employer, I'm telling you I need you here,' " Delinko said. "So he had to make a choice. He came to work."
The decision was easy, Sare said.
"I have fun when I'm working," he said. "When you get the job that you were really, really dreaming about and that you really liked, you just have fun all the time."
Sare now aspires to be a chef. He said after he leaves Stephens in three or four years, he wants to go to one of the Pinellas Technical Education Centers for additional culinary training. He wants to continue to break down stereotypes about people who are disabled.
"Every step I take, I take in confidence that I will be able to make that," he said. "I will be able to succeed and be a testimony and role model to all the other kids. That way, they can see if they push forward and put effort into it, they will be able to do it as well."
Rodney Thrash can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4167.