ByÂ Richard Brown
Just like they had done all year, an hour a day, up to twice a week, George Mendez and Yazbeth Velasquez folded, matched and sorted high-fashion clothes at the Banana Republic store at Calexicoâ€™s Gran Plaza mall. Today would be different, though, when assistant manager Stephanie Villanueva presented the young men with a cake on their last day of â€œwork.â€
â€œIâ€™m proud of you guys,â€ Villanueva said. â€œWe really have appreciated the help. Thank you for the hard work.â€
And hard work it has been, at least for Mendez, 19, of Calexico, who is severely developmentally disabled. Even though he said itâ€™s â€œhard,â€ he also said he likes â€œeverythingâ€ about it, smiling ear to ear Monday as he worked on a wall of chinos, sorting them by waist size with his helper, instructional aide Francisca Arevalo.
Mendez is a student in Francisco NuÃ±ezâ€™s Imperial County Office of Education special education class based at Calexico High School. While anywhere from two to four students can work the Banana Republic store, on Monday it was just Medina and 20-year-old Velasquez, also of Calexico, who folded womenâ€™s jackets and sorted them by size at a nearby table. They are part of a program called â€œWorkabilityâ€ through ICOE and the Imperial Valley Regional Occupational Program (ROP), NuÃ±ez said.
When not folding clothes, they might be sorting items or cleaning at the two other Calexico job sites they and a dozen other students work, KFC and Pizza Hut.
Working at the Banana Republic is special, however. NuÃ±ez said students with increased challenges might be more suited for KFC or Pizza Hut, but the more independent and advanced students can earn a spot at Banana Republic. Arevalo said KFC and Pizza Hut are closed to the public when the students come by. Not so at the high-end fashion outlet—the students work right alongside regular store staff and customers coming in looking for deals.
Banana Republic General Manager Israel MuÃ±iz has witnessed the students interact with the customers, and he thinks itâ€™s great. In fact, MuÃ±iz is a huge fan of Workability having initially come to the workforce at age 16 through an ROP work experience program himself.
â€œThatâ€™s one reason Iâ€™m so proud to work for this company: Weâ€™re all about inclusion,â€ he said of Banana Republic. The students â€œdefinitely blend in with the rest of the staff. â€¦ People will ask them for things and ask them for sizes. Some of the kids are kind of shy, but we work with them and help the customers out.â€
MuÃ±iz said the work the students do is extremely vital to the bottom line of the store, making sure the popular clearance racks that make up a large portion of the shopâ€™s business are picked up and in order by type, color, and size. During the course of a busy day, Villanueva said, regular store staff just canâ€™t get to it.
â€œThem having it all organized and ready for the customers,â€ MuÃ±iz said, â€œincreases our sales.â€ He added that 50 percent of the storeâ€™s business comes through the clearance areas.
The Workability program will start up again in the fall, and MuÃ±iz said he looks forward to a new crop of students to help in the store.
Villanueva is ready as well. â€œSometimes we complain about the little things, and then we see them come in so hungry to learn even little things. It inspires me in a way.â€
â€œNot just me as general manager, but every one of the staff generally enjoys working with them,â€ MuÃ±iz added. â€œTheir smiles are contagious, the teachersâ€™ aides are great, and overall itâ€™s an amazing experience, and anyone thinking of this program should definitely give it a try.â€