Latoya Bristor stands behind a stainless-steel counter carefully completing her daily tasks.
The 29-year-old has been working at Wright's Gourmet House in Tampa for nearly two years but has the spark of a new hire.
"She's always had this sunny personality," said her boss, Jeff Mount, the third-generation owner of one of Tampa's most popular establishments.
Dressed smartly in her uniform of a white chef's coat embroidered with her name, black pants and baseball cap, Bristor goes about her duties of seasoning meat, preparing salad dressings and prepping other food in the Wright's kitchen.
Bristor has been a part of the state's Vocational Rehabilitation program since 2006. The program helps people with physical or intellectual disabilities learn job skills so that they can find long-term employment and live as independently as possible.
With October serving as Disability Employment Awareness Month, Bristor's success is worth noting.
After graduating from high school, Bristor worked at a local hospital, where she had duties in the kitchen and mailroom and also delivered linens. But it wasn't until she completed a culinary training program and internship at Brewster Technical Institute that she really found her niche.
In order to earn her job at Wright's, Bristor worked on interview skills with her Vocational Rehabilitation employment coach, and also brushed up on the store's history, since every employee is expected to be able to answer questions about the family-owned business. Bristor also had to show that she was physically able to move bags of flour or sugar and complete other tasks safely.
Although Bristor is the first employee Wright's has hired from the vocational rehabilitation program, the gourmet deli has worked with other organizations that assist people with disabilities. Giving people a hand up is simply part of the Wright's culture, instilled by Mount's grandmother, Marjorie, who opened the gourmet shop in 1963.
"It's what we've always done," Mount said. "If someone comes along and we can help them, and they can help us, we try to make that happen."
"It gives them skills that translate from the classroom," added Megan Deveau, Wright's human resources generalist.
For employers, the vocational rehabilitation program provides trainable workers who tend to be extremely loyal and stay on the job longer.
One aspect of Bristor's duties includes helping to train new workers, an aspect of the job that she relishes.
"It makes me feel better," she said during a break from her work. "I love to help people."
Since joining as a part-time cook's assistance at Wright's, Bristor's job duties have increased, and new roles may be explored, such as working in the dining room, where Bristor's positive attitude is sure to be an asset.
Working at Wright's has certainly provided Bristor a sense of accomplishment and independence. She takes a bus to work three days a week and is always early to arrive. The income that she earns helps to provide for her 2-year-old daughter.
"Working here gives you strength and motivation," she said, adding that interacting with customers and her co-workers is one of her favorite parts of the job. "They're nice and friendly."
At her age, Bristor has many more years in the workplace. But she says she's happy right where she is, and if she gets her way, she'll keep working at Wright's until she's "old and gray."
"This is the best place to work."
Contact Candace Rotolo at [email protected]