Bringing Home Success

Justine Szatkiewicz photo

Tampa/Panama City, FL For more than 12 years, Hyatt Hotels of Florida has partnered with Hands On Education and the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) to provide a reality-based hospitality training program designed specifically for people with disabilities. The students are referred by VR, become temporary Hyatt employees, and are paid during their two weeks of training. The program began at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay and has grown to include eight Hyatt Hotels in Florida, three in Washington DC, and eight in Texas.

Justine Szatkiewicz of Panama City is one of over 1,200 students who have been trained since the program began in 1998. The 19 year-old, who has a mild mental disability with a speech and comprehension skills deficiency, has always wanted a career in food services, and with the help of VR, Hyatt Hotels and the Hands On Education program, she is one step closer to achieving her goal.

According to her supervisor at the Hyatt, Betsy Shimberg, Justine was a model employee. "When she started, she didn't have a lot of experience and was a little hesitant, like a lot of our students. But once she got going, she became more comfortable and really hit it off well with the other staff members at the Hyatt. The students work right along with the rest of the members of Hyatt. They are in there slicing and dicing, they clock in and clock out and get paid for the two weeks that they are working."

Justine met VR counselor Pam Cramer during her junior year of high school. Pam helped Justine take advantage of work experience opportunities that became available, such as job shadowing and Disability Mentoring Day. Pam knew that Justine would benefit from the Hands On Education program, so VR funded her training.

"She [Justine] is a hard worker. She really wants to work. She is doing exactly what she wants to be doing," says Pam. "I think employers can trust her to do her job well. She is the ideal employee."

Justine's father, Francis Szatkiewicz, was hesitant to send his daughter far away from home. "We didn't know what her true capabilities were before the program," he says. After the program, Francis was amazed at Justine's progress. "Without that program, I don't think she would be where she is now," he says.

He points out that both Justine's cooking and her life skills have improved in a remarkable way. "The opportunity that VR provided Justine with the Hands On Education has built her confidence level more than we could have expected. She spent two weeks taking care of herself, which really opened her eyes to say 'hey, I can do this.' Hopefully, at some point, she will be able to make it on her own."

Justine did so well, she was offered a permanent position with Hyatt; however, she turned it down because she didn't want to relocate at this time. She volunteered in her school cafeteria when she returned home and currently works at McDonald's in Panama City. She is looking to further her career in the culinary arts.

Justine enjoys spending time with her family and listening to music, in addition to her passion for cooking. She spends as much time in the kitchen as she can. "I always want to do more stuff in the kitchen," she says proudly. And with her newly improved culinary skills, that's a good thing.

Florida's Vocational Rehabilitation program is committed to helping people with disabilities become part of America's workforce. Our employer-focused website, FLJobConnections.com, allows businesses to search at no charge for employees who are ready to go to work, as well as to post available jobs. VR has 111 offices across Florida, and last year helped 3,874 Floridians with significant disabilities find or keep a job. For more information about VR and its services, call (800) 451-4327 or visit Rehabworks.org.