Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD), Blind Services, and Vocational Rehabilitation recognized 12 businesses that hire and retain people with disabilities with an Exceptional Employer Award today. The businesses from around the state were honored with a plaque made by people with disabilities. The 13th annual celebration was held at Tallahassee City Hall as part of recognizing October as Disability Employment Awareness Month.
The Exceptional Employer Awards are presented to companies that have a strong commitment to employing people with disabilities. Event sponsors were the City of Tallahassee, Blind Services Foundation, and RESPECT of Florida.
The 12 award-winning businesses are:
- Edibles by Ethel of Tampa
- Firehouse Subs (Statewide)
- Florida Department of Law Enforcement
- Hilton Ocala
- Lucky’s Market (Statewide)
- Paisley Cafe of Tallahassee
- Rising Tide Car Wash of Parkland and Margate
- SolarTech Universal of Riviera Beach
- The Village at Gainesville
- Treasure Bay Resort & Marina of Treasure Island
- Vinny & Bay’s Coffee and Eatery of Panama City
- World Golf Village Renaissance St. Augustine Resort
APD Director Barbara Palmer said, “We are thrilled to be honoring these deserving businesses from all over Florida for their important commitment to employing a diverse workforce. These company leaders know that individuals with disabilities are some of the most dedicated and reliable employees any business could want.”
Cissy Proctor, Executive Director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, said, “We applaud all of Florida’s employers who hire individuals with disabilities. We appreciate their recognition of the unique talents these Floridians bring to the workplace and their dedication to strengthening their communities.”
Director of the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Allison Flanagan said, “We are honored to recognize these employers who are leading the way in building an inclusive workforce and looking beyond the disability. Individuals with disabilities offer a broad pool of talents and tend to stay on the job longer than employees without disabilities. Given the opportunity, individuals with disabilities are able to show their skills, loyalty, and determination, and become successful members of the community. Hiring people with disabilities is a win-win for everyone!”
Speakers at the event included W. T. Moore Elementary School employee Titus Williams, Cayer Behavioral Group employee Connor Yeatts, and Goodwill Industries employee Brantley Goodson who shared what having a job means to them.
Here is information on the 12 winning companies:
Edibles by Ethel
This small gourmet catering company has been a great partner in the Tampa Bay area allowing individuals with disabilities the opportunity to achieve their goals of working in the food service industry. The owner, Ethel Pila, is patient, caring, and willing to help others in the kitchen. They have specialized equipment including cut-resistant gloves, light-weight measuring cups, and a raised chair. This year alone, this company has hired three people through the Vocational Rehabilitation program. In the past, Edibles by Ethel has hired as many as eight people with disabilities, including those with visual impairments, learning delays, and physical disabilities.
This statewide business is headquartered in Jacksonville. Firehouse Subs has worked closely with the Jacksonville Pine Castle’s Employment program, hiring more than 10 individuals with disabilities at their various Jacksonville stores. Around the state, Firehouse has hired eight people through the Vocational Rehabilitation program in recent years. Pine Castle Employment Director Tommy Holston said cofounders Robin Sorensen and his brother, Chris, have been at the forefront, making sure individuals with disabilities’ voices are heard and their input is received. Firehouse Subs focuses on the “can-do” philosophy for its employees, not what they can’t do. For that, the company is reaping the benefits.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement
This state agency has stepped up its efforts to hire people with disabilities. FDLE is headquartered here in our state capital. There are 21 individuals with disabilities employed in Tallahassee. Recently, FDLE has hired a person with a visual disability through the Division of Blind Services. FDLE was outstanding in its effort and support toward hiring the individual. They requested DBS do an assessment of their computer system to ensure there were no barriers for the person to be able to do the job. FDLE makes a concerted effort to hire people with disabilities participating in job fairs and track their progress after hiring.
This employer recently began its second year of being a Project Search site where they have offered internships to 12 selected students. Hilton Ocala hired four people who graduated from their first Project Search class earlier this year. Before they were a Project Search site, Hilton Ocala was already hiring those with special abilities, including two Vocational Rehabilitation customers, offering them the opportunity to work and earn a living. They also hired four Goodwill Suncoast customers. They recognize self-initiative and self-motivation.
The various Lucky’s Market stores have hired 21 individuals with unique abilities around the state in the past two years, including 16 Vocational Rehabilitation and five Agency for Persons with Disabilities customers. In their Melbourne store alone, they employ three people with special abilities. In the St. Petersburg store, there are six employees with disabilities. They allow job candidates to do on-the-job training in their stores, so they can get work experience. They carve out jobs, adjust hours, give extra training, and move employees around to different sections to find the best fit. They treat all employees with great respect and care.
This small restaurant is demonstrating a very strong commitment to employing people with disabilities and teaching them job skills. Currently there are three people with disabilities employed by the Paisley Cafe. They have created a new program called Autism Cooks Foundation. Their motivation for this effort is employee Kevin Graham, who is a customer of Vocational Rehabilitation and the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. They are the first restaurant in the area to have a “Autism Friendly” sticker posted outside the restaurant. The owner has followed her passion for helping others and supporting individuals with developmental disabilities.
Rising Tide Car Wash
This business was created to employ individuals with autism. Rising Tide Car Wash has been featured in national news stories. Of their nearly 100 employees, roughly 80 percent are on the autism spectrum, making them one of the largest employers of people with autism in the United States. Rising Tide was founded by a family affected by autism in an effort to empower individuals with this disability by giving them the tools to be excellent car wash professionals. By delivering a first-rate car wash experience, Rising Tide strives to inspire change in perceptions about the capabilities of people with autism. It also provides meaning and socialization for these adults who may otherwise be unemployed.
Florida’s only solar panel manufacturer, SolarTech Universal, is making the next generation in solar panels. There are currently four individuals employed with special abilities. This innovative company has made accommodations for employees with low vision to allow them to do tasks that require gross motor versus fine motor skills. They allow extra training time and provide support to each employee. If someone’s skills aren’t strong on one machine, they allow them to work on another machine to maximize everyone’s strengths. SolarTech has a family atmosphere and has included people with disabilities into their workplace culture. One employee has developed more confidence, saying, “This is the first time someone has believed in me.”
The Village at Gainesville
This large retirement community has more than 300 employees working around the clock to care for the people living there. They employ about 25 people with all types of disabilities, including deafness and intellectual disabilities. This past year, two people were hired through Vocational Rehabilitation. Others were employed through the Arc of Alachua.
These employees work in food service, housekeeping, maintenance, and other jobs. The Village is very willing to make accommodations for employees as needed.
Treasure Bay Resort & Marina
This exclusive resort hotel has a small workforce with more than a fifth of it made up of people with disabilities, with two employees who are deaf.
Treasure Bay is participating in an internship program for students on the autism spectrum. They work one day a week doing housekeeping or in the kitchen to develop skills to help them transition into employment. The resort makes sure they learn the skills needed to be a successful employee in a hotel. General Manager Nigel Duffett said anyone trained and skilled in the hotel business is never going to go hungry in Pinellas County. Duffett said his decision two and a half years ago to include individuals with disabilities in his hotel workforce was the perfect business decision given the shortage of workers in his area of the state. Treasure Bay Resort creates an environment that provides employees the opportunity to maximize their potential both at work and in life.
Vinny & Bay’s Coffee and Eatery
This new business just celebrated one year of operation and has plans to open a second store soon. This small coffee shop was the idea of 20-year-old Madeline Lovejoy whose good friend has Down syndrome.
She wanted a business that employed people with disabilities, and now she runs a very successful one that is named after two friends with disabilities, Vinny Vargas and best friend Baylee Hanson. Her entire workforce of eight employees is made up of people with disabilities.
Two of the individuals were customers of Vocational Rehabilitation.
The company’s slogan is “Be changed for good.” Vinny and Bay’s is definitely changing the Panama City community for the good.
World Golf Village Renaissance St. Augustine Resort
Renaissance St. Augustine Resort has at least 13 people with disabilities on their payroll, including 10 interns who graduated from their recent Project Search class who are now regular employees. This hotel has also collaborated with Vocational Rehabilitation and allowed on-the-job experiences hiring two individuals who completed this training. The hotel has designated one person in each department to establish natural supports for interns and employees with disabilities. The Resort allows flexible scheduling, job carving, assistance with training, and open communication to help people be successful. They are invested in what is best for employees and interns, so they are successful in a competitive, fast-paced, and high-energy hospitality work environment. World Golf Village Resort is committed to giving all employees equal access to opportunities, and competitive and fair compensation.
About Florida APD
APD supports people with developmental disabilities to live, learn, and work in their communities. The agency annually serves more than 50,000 Floridians with autism, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, intellectual disabilities, Down syndrome, Phelan-McDermid syndrome, and Prader-Willi syndrome. For more information about the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, visit APDcares.org or call toll-free 1‑866‑APD‑CARES (1‑866‑273‑2273).