She's Found Her Niche

Starla Sansom photo

Spring Hill, FL Starla Sansom places another peeled eggplant into the slicing machine and smiles. Starla, who has developmental disabilities, has finally found a place where she can shine, where she can show her skills, where she fits in.At Mr. G's Foods, Starla works on the assembly line making eggplant parmesan, which will be delivered to restaurants all over the country.

Starla is a star of Vocational Rehabilitation's (VR) On-the-Job Training program and a real success story. When Starla first came to see VR Counselor Cirila (Leela) Diaz, she was very shy, unemployed and living with her mother. In working with Starla offering counseling and encouragement, Cirila has seen Starla blossom. "She first came to see me with her mom and her mom was answering all the questions for her," says Cirila. "But then she started coming to her appointments by herself. I encouraged her to go for training and then maybe she could get a job."

And that is just what happened. Cirila paired Starla with Employment Specialist Sandra Nicoll who thought Starla would be a perfect candidate for VR's On-the-Job Training program. With the On-the-Job Training program, VR reimburses employers for the trainee's salary, any training costs, and any accommodations needed. It's a win-win situation for both the business owner and the employee. Starla interviewed at Mr. G's Foods and they decided to give her a chance.

Companies participating in On-the-Job Training have time to train an individual at no cost to the company. Starla did such a great job that when she finished her three-month training, Mr. G's Foods hired her full time. She now does a variety of jobs using the machines to peel, slice, bread, oil, and bake eggplant parmesan.

Denise Roqueta, Assistant Administrator for Mr. G's Foods, has nothing but praise for Starla. "Starla has never missed a day, is never late, is very reliable, and is a fantastic worker. She's sociable and gets along with everybody and is well liked. We were glad to offer her a position and plan on keeping her."

According to Sandra, "Starla always has a smile on her face." Starla agrees and hopes to work at Mr. G's Foods for a long time. "It's a really nice place to work," she says. "They go all out. It's the best job I've ever had." She also appreciates the help that Cirila and Sandra gave her. "Leela is a good, nice person, and Sandra is nice too. She's a good-hearted person. I thank her for getting me this job. I'm successful."

Cirila and Sandra are very proud of Starla for how far she has come in such a short time. Starla is working in a job she loves, has moved from her mother's house and is independent, living by herself. Sandra is happy that VR's On-the-Job Training gave Starla the chance to prove to herself and her employer that she has valuable skills to share and that it led to employment.

Helping people like Starla is the reason Cirila and Sandra do what they do for a living. "This is my career," says Cirila. "This is my niche and I get satisfaction from helping people with disabilities. The most important thing is to let the customer know that they can do it. You encourage them and raise their self esteem. You use your heart and mind to help your customers."

Denise encourages other employers to hire people with disabilities. "They're just people," she says. "They need a job, and they're just like everyone else. They're very willing to work, and we feel that we should give everyone a chance." At Mr. G's Foods, they look for the position where an employee is most comfortable and keep them there. They've hired a number of people with disabilities and plan to continue hiring the best person for the job.

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 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.