[callout]Last week, before Thanksgiving, I took the time to read a long Facebook post from a friend of mine, John Paulk. He’s the owner and Executive Chef at Mezzaluna Fine Catering in Portland, OR.

I had tears in my eyes as I neared the end of the post because John writes eloquently about reaching out, as an employer, to the disenfranchised. The hard-to-hire. The down-and-out. He writes mainly about one employee who has Schizophrenia. There, but the grace of God, go I….. That’s what was on my mind as I read. The statement I’ve bolded below affected me greatly.

I love what John has been able to do. I don’t know your story. You may not be able to influence anyone’s hiring practices, but what about friendship? What about not looking away when we walk past someone? What about eye contact? A smile? Expressing hope? Helping others understand?

If you’re a reader of my blog, you know all of us at Celebrate Kids believe everyone needs:

  • solid security placed in people who are trustworthy;
  • accurate, current, and complete identity;
  • healthy belonging based on quality relationships with people who are for us;
  • fulfilling purpose allowing them to use strengths and weaknesses to positively serve others; and
  • competence to be and do what fulfills their purpose.

John and his staff have provided all five of these for Jeff (and others). The example deeply inspires me. What can we do today?

Everyone needs their core needs met well. Everyone. All people. No exceptions.

Here’s John’s post. I pray you’re inspired.[/callout]

As Thanksgiving approaches, I’m reflecting on some of the incredible men and women who have come through the doors of Mezzaluna over the years that I’ve been incredibly thankful for. Since I often felt like a misfit myself throughout my life, I wanted Mezzaluna to be a place of respite for people—a place where the troubles of life could be forgotten for a few moments, and where joy and comradery reigned. I often have used my catering company as a place to help out people in need.

I once hired a man who was just released from federal prison who couldn’t find a job and needed a fresh start on the outside. I brought on a woman who had been a prostitute and drug abuser who wanted to become a chef. I’ve had numerous former strippers through my kitchen. During the economic downturn of 2008, I hired two men who were living in their Mercedes, and had lost everything–they had nothing and desperately needed a place to be productive and regain their dignity. I’ve hired those wanting a better future in America who were seeking to become permanent residents. I’ve employed conservative Christians who were not in favor of same-sex marriage, but who felt respected while working alongside others who were in favor of such unions. I’ve had esoterics who believed they were from the Planet Saturn, numerous recovering alcoholics, victims healing from being raped, teenagers wanting to learn a work ethic, housewives who needed a place to spend their afternoons.

11-30-15 JeffBut today, I want to tell you about someone who has come to mean a great deal to me personally, and to our company in particular. His name is Jeff Emery Wallace. I met Jeff in the spring of 2013 and we struck up a fast friendship. What intrigued me most, were his unique and highly introspective positions on life. Months went by, we hung out and became friends. I decided to ask Jeff if he would like to earn some extra money at Mezzaluna. He jumped at the chance. Jeff is a natural at this type of work. He is prompt, courteous, respective of others, a very detailed worker, funny to a fault, and always brings a smile to the staff.

Jeff is also schizophrenic. Schizophrenia is a serious mental disorder. It is one of the most difficult mental illnesses to control and a psychotic disorder characterized by loss of contact with the environment, by noticeable deterioration in the level of functioning in everyday life, and by disintegration of personality expressed as disorder of feeling, thought (as in delusions), perception (as in hallucinations), and behavior. Schizophrenia is a disease that typically begins in early adulthood; between the ages of 15 and 25.

We often see individuals walking around seemingly talking to themselves or arguing violently with themselves. Often these people are affected by Schizophrenia. Some people affected by this disorder have delusions and are affected by varying degrees of paranoia and tremendous fears, in addition to the devastating symptoms they deal with on a daily basis.

Individuals also have a tough time making sense of incoming stimuli, making it impossible to focus on seemingly simple activities, regardless of their intelligence or education level. In fact, a hallmark of schizophrenia is the person’s inability to sort, interpret and appropriately respond to stimuli. For me, I feared what I failed to understand. I looked the other way and crossed to the other side of the street to avoid these individuals.

But Jeff changed all that. He is one of our best employees. He is highly intelligent, consistent, a kind-hearted man—always willing to lend a hand, and a hard worker. That doesn’t mean we haven’t had our challenges. Our staff have had to learn to understand and have compassion for and recognize his behavior patterns, emotional states, and ways of processing his life. Our team LOVE and adore Jeff. Jillian has especially developed a huge heart and patience for him. She often can reach out to him when I or others aren’t effective.

Over the months, I’ve seen Jeff struggle to hold on and hang in there when it gets tough. He fights strong internal forces that wage against him. His disorder doesn’t want him to take his medication…it wants him to allow the plague that fights him to win. Jeff often tells me that he knows without his medication (in his words) he would be “crazy.” He also knows that without his medication that he would, eventually, be back out on the streets. But in the midst of it all, Jeff continues to take his medication and fight. We, at Mezzaluna, admire Jeff very much. He has a place in our work family and we love him.

I’m writing this story–with Jeff’s permission, because–both he and I–want to encourage employers to take a chance and hire people with disabilities they might not understand on the surface. People with schizophrenia are heroic in their attempts to keep a mental equilibrium, considering their disordered brain functioning. The proper response from us should be one of patience, compassion, and understanding.

Jeff is one of my heroes. He is a man to be admired. He is my employee. He is my friend.