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Long IslandLI Life

Nonprofit shop in Hicksville helps prepare people with disabilities for the job market

The store is open Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Volunteer store clerks George Sauer, from left, of

Volunteer store clerks George Sauer, from left, of Wantagh, Claire Himmelmann of Amityville, Dinora Gomez of Island Park and Vladimir Noel of Elmont. Photo Credit: Marisol Diaz-Gordon

Shoppers at the One Stop Gift Shop in Hicksville may think they are only purchasing jewelry, handmade items by local vendors, quirky socks, candles, dishcloths and other merchandise, but they are also helping the sales staff land their dream jobs.

The store, which opened June 26, is the latest undertaking by AHRC Nassau, based in Brookville, to offer skills training that helps prepare people with disabilities for the job market.

“Our goal is not to make income for the agency,” said Karen Tanzillo, AHRC’s senior director of programs. “All proceeds will fund items for students at local schools and other nonprofits” in the community.

The store is open Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The nonprofit AHRC Nassau is the largest agency on Long Island supporting people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities and their families. There is also an AHRC chapter in Suffolk, with offices on Veterans Highway in Bohemia. AHRC’s array of programs includes vocational and employment services. The One Stop Gift Shop, at 113 Levittown Pkwy., is part of the agency’s day program.

Four people in that program — which also provides opportunities for men and women with disabilities to participate in community activities (such as delivering food through Meals on Wheels and visiting senior centers and nursing homes) that promote personal growth — were selected to volunteer at the store while learning skills and building self-confidence for paying jobs in the workforce. They prepare inventories, operate the cash register, stock shelves and greet and serve customers.

One of them is George Sauer, 37, of Wantagh. “I’m loving it,” he said of his activities at the shop. “I’m really having a great time here. It’s exciting. It’s a very good opportunity for me to be in this process.”

Tanzillo said support staff is always available at the store and includes Steve Arzt, the store’s general manager.

People from AHRC’s Workforce Division have been placed in such jobs as landscaping, front-desk reception and concessions at Nassau Coliseum. Employment is hard to come by among disabled Americans, according to federal job statistics.

In 2015, there were nearly 40 million Americans with a disability, according to the Pew Research Center, citing U.S. Census Bureau statistics.

In 2017, just 18.7 percent of people with disabilities were employed, compared to 17.9 percent in 2016. Many had part-time positions and mostly in the service industries, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The 2016 unemployment rate for those with disabilities was 9.2 percent.

“We are all at risk of having a disability at some point in our lifetime,” said Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The flip-flops, sunglasses, pillows, essential oils, dog and cat beds and other items in the gift shop — a former thrift store renovated with the décor of a boutique, plus a chandelier and wood floors — are bought from local vendors, some of whom make donations. Tanzillo said business is steady.

“The word is getting around, and people come in daily,” she said. “We’re doing OK for a new business.”

Faylene Bonasia, a coordinator for Care Design, an organization that provides care management services for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, enjoyed her recent visit.

“It’s adorable. I’m going crazy in here,” Bonasia said.

GEORGE SAUER

George Sauer said he enjoys the training he is getting at the One Stop Gift Shop, such as greeting customers at the door and selling pocketbooks, jewelry and other items the store stocks. But what he is hoping for is a job as a clerk in a five-star hotel.

Sauer, 37, said he believes the training he received in a BOCES program and skills he is learning at the shop will help him qualify for the employment he seeks.  

“I want to learn some things I never learned before,” said Sauer, referring to handling money, billing, using an iPad and expanding his organizational and social skills. 

Sauer, who has two younger brothers and two younger sisters, lives with his parents in Wantagh. His day starts when he is picked up at home in transportation the AHRC provides, getting to the store at about 8.30 a.m., more than an before it opens at 10 a.m.  

“I get a cup of coffee,” Sauer said, and as customers come in, “I say, ‘Good morning; how are you? How’s your day? May I help you?' "

Sauer had some work experience selling Italian ices in a pasta business his father owned. He also sold ice cream at Donna’s Food in Bellmore until the store closed in September 2003. Sauer said he worked at a Stop & Shop as a bagger but that his hours were cut and he was eventually laid off.

In the AHRC day program since September 2003, Sauer also makes deliveries for Meals on Wheels as an activity of the AHRC day program. He does food shopping for elderly people, and serves lunch at a church-run community center.

“I want to help them,” Sauer said of the AHRC. “They have very good programs.”

At the end of his day, about 2 p.m., Sauer  heads to the AHRC day program site in Wantagh — one of more than 30 in Nassau that the agency operates — where he learns independent living and socializing skills.  

"They have very good programs," Sauer said. "Every night I pray for AHRC."

DINORA GOMEZ

When she was given the opportunity to work in the One Stop Gift Shop, Dinora Gomez “became very excited,” recalled Karen Tanzillo, AHRC senior director of programs. Gomez had always wanted to work in retail after a stint at the retailer TJMaxx, folding childrens' and adults’ clothing and stocking shelves as part of work arranged for her through her school’s BOCES program.

Gomez, 23, graduated from the Brookville Center for Children’s Services, a school for students with special needs. She lives in Island Park with her parents and a younger sister but said she wants to be independent.

“I want to get my own place and move out of my parents' house,” she said. “I’m looking for work in retail and putting in applications, but nobody called me.”

At the One Stop Gift Shop Gomez, who is bilingual, shows customers around the store, telling them about “the different stuff we have, answering the phone, working at the counter and sometimes the cash register. I’m good with customers. I make everybody feel comfortable; people who don’t speak English,” she said.

Were it not for those activities, Gomez said, “I’d hate to be staying home doing nothing,” adding that she has volunteered at various thrift stores and is hopeful she will find work “because I have experience already.”

In addition, she is detail-oriented and “possesses excellent social skills and enjoys interacting with people,” Tanzillo said, noting that Gomez sees working in the store as a chance to practice her money and organizational skills.

Gomez is active in the AHRC day program’s community outreach, delivering meals to seniors and food shopping for them.

VLADIMIR NOEL

Vladimir Noel said his foster mother is helping him to be independent,  and that he wants to use computer skills he learned at Nassau Community College to get a job.

In the meantime Noel, 30, of Elmont, the youngest of three children and a graduate of New Hyde Park High School, is getting experience at the One Stop Gift Shop working with the public and developing time-management skills and skills needed to work in an office or in retail.

At the shop, he is at the door early to welcome shoppers. Noel stocks shelves and operates the cash register. Some of those skills he learned working at the former KB Toys under a BOCES program. He also has experience working on a production line assembling dental kits, ear buds and boxes in an AHRC Workforce program.

Noel started at AHRC Nassau in 2009 and is active in the agency’s community programs.   

“I like helping people, seeing what they need,” he said.

CLAIRE HIMMELMANN

Karen Tanzillo, AHRC senior director of programs, describes Claire Himmelmann as “a very friendly, outgoing and energetic young lady…always willing to help…self-sufficient, and she advocates for herself.”

Himmelmann, 59, lives with an older sister in Amityville. She is a former dog walker for Bide-a-Wee, a pet rescue and shelter organization with locations in Wantagh, Westhampton and Manhattan, and said she would like to work in a pet store. At the One Stop Gift Shop she is learning to use a cash register and how to work with customers.

“I like it a lot,” Himmelmann said, adding that she thinks the experience will help her gain employment. “It’s interesting. I get to learn more.”

If she were not at the store, Himmelmann said she “probably would be sitting home watching TV or getting bored. Here I’m able to help others and work with other people.”

She has a lot of experience doing that through the AHRC day program, having worked part time in thrift shops folding clothes, and delivered meals to home-bound seniors and for Island Harvest to serve in soup kitchens.

 Himmelmann has also assisted in nursing homes, worked with animals and volunteered at a Head Start program in Massapequa reading books to children. She is now participating in a library literacy program in West Hempstead.

“If I can do this I can go out in the world,” Himmelmann said.

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