Just Like Everybody Else
Johns Creek, Georgia (Senate District 48)
Cristian is a 19-year-old man with Down syndrome in Johns Creek, Georgia. After graduating from high school last year, Cristian came to work at the Hilton Garden Inn in June 2018. He folds towels and bedsheets, organizes stockrooms and closets and helps out in other parts of the hotel in a pinch. For instance, when the hotel lobby got very busy one morning, he was asked to jump in to help out with cleaning and bussing tables. Cristian did a great job because he’s a team player. Denise Frier, Cristian’s job coach through the ministry Randy & Friends, Inc., has been crucial in helping him get acclimated to the work environment. When he first started, Cristian would struggle with redirecting himself after finishing a task. He would often stand (sometimes alone) in a room and wait for the next assignment. Since those early days on the job, Randy & Friends has helped him learn how to be more creative and self-directed in approaching his work.
Though job coaches often don’t come into a person’s life until after they’ve graduated and begin vocational training, Denise and Cristian actually met when he was still in high school thanks to an innovative program at Randy & Friends, which is contracted through the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency. The pilot program at Cristian’s school, Northview High, started out by teaching an hour-long class in life skills. (Story continues below after slideshow.)
They immediately saw the importance of working with students at an earlier age, rather than waiting for them to graduate or age out of high school and then, as Denise says, “go home and sit on the couch and do nothing.” Denise says that it’s a big shift, a positive shift, for the school, the parents and the individuals. Randy & Friends is now expanding their early intervention program into four more high schools this year.
Denise is phasing out as his job coach, although she’ll still be around to help with coaching other personal and social aspects of his life such as independent living (learning how to ride Uber, grocery shopping and eventually light cooking at home). His mom, Noel admits that helping Cristian learn how to live independently will be as much about her letting go and trusting the process as it will be about his own skill building.
“I see Cristian taking reservations over the phone one day. Our company likes to promote from within,” Mary-Jo Ruiz, general manager of the Hilton Garden Inn, says with a grin, looking at Cristian. Denise says that, in her position, she sees the ins and outs of many businesses. The Hilton has really impressed her with their innovation and treatment of Cristian. “There [are] no holds barred where this staff is concerned,” says Denise. “Every day he comes in, he’s greeted, he is encouraged. They constantly stop in and make sure he has everything he needs. He couldn’t be in a more supportive place.”
Cristian does not have a Medicaid waiver. He’s been on the waitlist for a COMP waiver since he was 10. He does, however, receive Medicaid for his medical insurance needs. One of the things Noel is looking forward to about Cristian hopefully receiving a Medicaid waiver in the future is support for transportation. She has two younger children at home, including a toddler. Juggling transportation for everyone can be quite challenging. It will be very important for Cristian to become independent. They can’t afford to pay for Cristian to ride Uber everywhere he needs to go.
If given the opportunity to speak directly with a legislator, Noel would say that people with developmental disabilities are “just like everybody else. Don’t feel sorry for them.” At the same time, Noel feels strongly that people like her son should not have their opportunities limited. “He’s here, working. Don’t put limits on them. I believe they can do anything they want to do. If they really want to do something, they work hard to do it. They’re not lazy. They’re not afraid to try if they get the opportunity.” Noel says that the worst thing that could happen is for someone to “cut her son’s wings.” She really hopes he can get support to go to college like he wants to.
“He knows he has Down syndrome, but he’s just like everybody else. Down syndrome is not the definition of who he is.” Looking at Cristian, Noel asks Cristian, “Down syndrome is what?” “It’s cool,” Cristian replies.
Writer: Shannon Turner, Photographer: Lynsey Weatherspoon