photo of kirk with employment specialist heather simpson

Just a few short years ago, Kirk K. was enrolled in TST BOCES’s Career Exploration Program, which enables high school seniors to engage in short-term work experiences under the guidance of a job-site mentor. Now, Kirk has found steady employment at the Lansing Market—and he is already serving as a mentor to a new batch of young job seekers with disabilities and other barriers.

Upon graduating with an IEP diploma, Kirk was referred by a guidance counselor to Challenge Workforce Solutions, where he could continue to investigate his career options in collaboration with a dedicated Job Developer. After short stints at Cornell Dining and McDonald’s, Kirk was hired on as a stocker at the Lansing Market, an independent full-service grocery store that takes special pride in its locally-sourced produce, friendly service, and contribution to community events and programs.

Like many of our participants in community employment, Kirk received intensive daily job coaching at the outset, which soon faded to once- or twice-weekly check-ins. “Heather Simpson has been my Employment Specialist for the last couple of years,” says Kirk. “She talks with me to see if I have any problems, but normally I don’t. Sometimes she also talks with my managers and my Medicaid Service Coordinator, and that’s been very helpful at times.”

With these ongoing supports, Kirk has achieved immense personal and professional growth, and was recently promoted to Manager of Dairy and Frozen Foods. His current responsibilities include ensuring the proper rotation of stock, implementing safe food handling practices, and working as part of a team to maintain the cleanliness and appearance of the store. He says his favorite part of the job is interacting with the shoppers and delivery truck drivers: “I always have a smile on my face and I try to cheer them up if they’re having a bad day.”

Kirk’s managers have also put him in charge of supervising and training several prevocational participants from both Challenge and the JM Murray Center in Cortland who have come to the Lansing Market for work experiences. “I don’t let them just stand there with their hands in their pockets,” he says. “I have them facing stock, checking expiration dates, signing in trucks.” One Challenge participant that he mentored last year is now working with a Job Developer to apply for a full-time job as a grocery stocker.

“Kirk is extremely dedicated to his job,” says Tony Eisenhut, who co-founded the Lansing Market in 2011 along with the Sciarabba family and other leaders in the Lansing community, which had been without a grocery store for over two decades. “He also has tremendous pride in his work area, which has been recognized by our customers.”

“Hiring conscientious, enthusiastic front-line employees is extremely difficult,” Tony continues, “but in the face of a rapidly changing retail food market, it’s crucial to success. Having the Challenge team work with us and their participants to ensure that all parties are getting what they need has been incredibly valuable. We continue to look for ways that we can expand what we do with Challenge because it makes our business better.”