Today is a Friday at the Starbucks Manufacturing and Distribution Center in York County, a work day for Robby Rost. Typically, Robby runs to the door as soon as he gets out of the van. Laughing and smiling, he shows how happy he is to be at work.
On this particular Friday, though, his trainer observes that Robby seems a bit tired. Regardless, he dons the vest, hair net, and helmet required of everyone on the warehouse floor and immediately gets to work packaging mugs for the retailer’s next big promotion. Soon, he’s wearing that infectious smile that brightens everyone’s day.
A Vista Adult Services client, Robby works part time at the Starbucks plant with on-the-job support from Vista staff. He also has the support of his trainer, Brenda Branch, a 17-year Starbucks veteran whose new role includes specifically finding work for Robby and helping him to master the skills to do his job successfully.
“We always have things that need to be done,” said Annie Hughes, Starbucks learning specialist. “To have someone here to prep our work saves time.”
Skills we can market
Vista Adult Services specializes in looking for tasks being neglected or taking employees away from their job duties. The adults in Vista’s program “really do have skills we can market,” said Nicole Shorey, employment specialist.
Shorey gets choked up when she speaks about the commitment of Vista’s business partners, such as Hershey Entertainment & Resorts, Pepsi Beverages Company, and now Starbucks. These employers have gone to great lengths to make the partnership work. When one Vista client doesn’t work out, they ask, “Do you have anyone else?”
“As we find new businesses, we are learning new things,” she said. At Starbucks, the Vista team is learning the benefits of having someone like Brenda Branch, “who was given to us and has carved out time to be with our client.”
Boxes galore in need of attention
Approximately 500 employees work three shifts a day, seven days a week, at the York County facility. The 400,000-square-foot warehouse has boxes galore. Opening or putting boxes together, or stopping to correct wrong tags or labels, are all tasks that take time away from filling orders for Starbucks’ many retail stores.
Branch scours the noisy warehouse floor for this kind of work and brings it to a quiet area set up for Robby in a mock warehouse used to train new employees. Years ago, Branch drove a school bus, but she didn’t know what to expect when she was assigned to work with an adult who has autism.
“The first day, when he came in, I showed him how to make boxes. I only had to show him one time,” she said. “He has a real eye for detail. Once you show him, he’s got it.”
After a few months, Branch has become adept at reading Robby. “I can tell if he’s really tired, needs a drink, or needs a couple of extra minutes,” she said. “One of the things I have discovered is to try not to surprise him. If he knows what we’re going to do, he’s ready for it.”
She’s also learned how to refocus his attention. When Robby wanders away, as he’s prone to do from time to time, Branch brings him back on task with a gentle, “Robby, come on.”
“I wanted someone really understanding” to work with Robby, Hughes said. “This is her job. It’s all new for Brenda.”
“Actually, I love it,” Branch volunteered. “This could be expanded [by bringing in more adults with autism]. When he comes in, he’s just so excited to be here. He’s happy. He enjoys what he does. He sings to us. It’s a breath of fresh air [for me] being in here.”