AUGUSTA — Less than a year ago, Barjona Barnes could hardly hold a conversation, let alone a job.
The autistic 20-year-old now works part time sweeping floors, busing tables and doing dishes at Big Mama's Soul Food in the Daniel Village shopping center.
Meagan Cooper cried for hours when her mother dropped her off for her first day as a temp at Burkes Outlet in North Augusta. Now the 19-year-old is a full-fledged employee at the discount department store.
Both would likely be unemployed if not for Easterseals East Georgia's workforce development programs, which help people with mental and physical disabilities find jobs and work toward independence.
The nonprofit places anywhere from 80 to 110 area residents — from teenagers to senior citizens — into the labor force each year.
"It doesn't sound like a lot, but it is for the disabled population," Easterseals CEO Lynn Smith said.
Nearly 57 million Americans, roughly one in five people, have a physical or mental impairment. According to federal labor statistics, the unemployment rate among people with disabilities is 8%, more than twice the rate of those with no disability.
More than half of Easterseals' area operation is devoted to finding jobs for those with barriers to employment, ranging from people with mild developmental disabilities up to the blind. All participants are pre-screened through the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency.
Historically, Easterseals has employed workers with disabilities in its industrial production department on Wrightsboro Road, which offers forklift training to prospective warehouse workers and provides contract material-sorting and basic assembly services for companies such as Cintas and John Deere. Easterseals also operates a janitorial service that cleans Augusta's two federal courthouses and its three Interstate 20 rest areas.
But Easterseals is increasingly getting clients out into the community through its "Job Sampling" program, which provides labor to nearly a dozen area companies, including the Kroger and Publix supermarket chains.
"We've learned that people need to get out in the community and try different things," Smith said. "It gets them real work environments with real employers."
By placing workers at multiple jobsites under observation of an Easterseals coach, the organization can determine what tasks an individual is most equipped to handle.
Cooper, who also is autistic, excels at sorting apparel in the Burkes stockroom.
"I'm really good at sizing," she said. "I know I can do it. I know that the Lord has faith in me."
Her boss, store manager Charmetra Johnson, said Cooper has come a long way during the past two years and has proven herself worthy of being on the store payroll.
"We don't pacify them," Johnson said. "This program is designed to help them become self-sufficient in the career world."
Easterseals is able to place about 75% of workers with employers; the rest it employs through its internal contract-service operations. Companies who hire program participants with disabilities are eligible for special job tax credits.
Workers receive minimum wage for their labor, whether they are employed by Easterseals or a client company.
Job Coach Coordinator Lee Strickland said the organization helps clients get driver's licenses and learn how to navigate the bus system to get to work. A large part of the training program is simply building up their confidence levels.
"I hate to say it, but a lot of times they've been made fun of," she said. "In school they've usually been in special classes. It's a lot of stress and anxiety on them when they first come in."
Barnes, the Big Mama's employee, is not the overly timid young man he was when he started at the restaurant 11 months ago.
"He's an excellent worker," said Kaniyah Johnson, daughter of co-owner Kamarsha Johnson. "I enjoy working with him, and so does everybody else."
Barnes has made such a remarkable improvement that he was named the program's employee of the year.
"I still have that a little bit," Barnes said of his shyness. "I'm a little better, though."