The Model Employee
Powder Springs, Georgia (Senate District 33)
It’s Saturday morning on a bright, hot summer day in August. James is awake, but only for his fifteen minutes of fame. Given his druthers, James would rather sleep until noon on a Saturday. When he finally does wake up on Saturdays, he rolls down to the kitchen to make himself breakfast and then heads back up to play his Xbox for a while. One of the reasons James likes to sleep in on the weekends is that he works hard at his job, detailing cars, during the week.
(Story continues below after slideshow.)
James Abshire is a 26-year-old man living in Powder Springs, Georgia. He has pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), which causes a mild intellectual/developmental disability (I/DD) and sensory processing disorder (SPD).
A little more than a year ago, James got his job immediately after finishing professional training at the Roosevelt Warm Springs. Not only did James begin getting ready for his career while he was in school, but he also developed independent-living skills, such as how to clean his room, cook for himself and negotiate how to live with roommates. He had to learn how to manage his class and appointment schedule. Now that he’s living back at home, he continues to apply those skills with helping around the house, cleaning the dishes and going to work, and maybe one day he’ll have the opportunity to live independently. At this point, however, Stephanie says, “Until further notice, James will be here forever.” At the same time, this thought leads Stephanie to ponder the fact that, actually, she will not be here forever. She knows that James has a younger brother and a sister, and she hopes they will be able to help him out.
James says he doesn’t have a lot of friends now that he's living back at home. He wishes he did, but he doesn’t think the car wash is the place to find them. He feels different from a lot of the people he works with, mostly because he’s a devout Christian. His mom, Stephanie, agrees that she wishes James had more friends now. They are very active in their church, Elevate Christian Church, participating in weekly outreach ministries such as Celebrate Recovery, which involves assisting with childcare services while participants who are in addiction recovery gather and support each other. Stephanie says it’s important to take her children to those types of events because she wants to instill in them a lifelong belief in faith-based service. James and Devon were baptized together last Sunday. It was a huge family event, with James's step-grandfather presiding. James’s favorite song is “Come to the Altar” by a popular contemporary Christian group, Elevation Worship. The likeness between the musical group and their church is completely coincidental.
Halloween is just around the bend. It’s James’s favorite time of year. He particularly collects and wears masks made famous by horror films, including "Scream," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Halloween." Once, when James was about 15, he scared everyone, including his family, by putting on his mask and standing out in the dark in their yard. He’s already planning for this year. The family lives not far from Six Flags Over Georgia, and James is very excited to be headed there for Fright Fest, the amusement park’s annual celebration at Halloween. He hasn’t completely planned his outfit, but he knows it will probably involve a scary mask and a chainsaw.
The family gets away as much as they can by traveling, often on weekends and holidays, to Lake Wedowee in Alabama where James’s stepdad’s parents live. They have a little RV parked on the property, though these days James is much happier sleeping inside his grandparents’ house. They also have a boat that fits seven people, and they love to get out on the lake to their “special place,” a secluded spot halfway between the grandparents’ house and Flat Rock Park.
James's stepbrother, Devon (12), who also likes to sleep in on Saturdays, comes wandering into the conversation: “Get my good side,” he says to the photographer, grinning mischievously. Devon is clearly into having his picture taken. What does Devon think about his big brother? “James is a really good brother. He looks after me and tells me what to do. He helps me with my work because I struggle a little bit.” As Devon wanders off to the kitchen to start making his breakfast, James wonders out loud if he should go help Devon. James decides that maybe it’s a good time for them both to have some breakfast, so they head into the kitchen to make breakfast together. Stephanie smiles because she loves how much the two look after each other, even if they sometimes get a little too bossy.
Always the lovers of anything involving the outdoors, the Abshire family’s home in Powder Springs backs up to Sweetwater Creek State Park. They have built a go-kart track going all through the woods in their back yard. Even though James is unable to drive out on the open road, he loves to take a four-wheeler out onto the track. Unfortunately, Stephanie and Devon had an accident last year, which injured Stephanie’s leg. She’s been a little reticent to get back on the track ever since.
Stephanie explains James’s birth and diagnosis process. Within his first year, Stephanie and James’s pediatrician started noticing that James was not meeting developmental milestones. The doctor recommended that James enter an early childhood intervention program right away. Because of that opportunity, James was able to begin speech and occupational therapy. Stephanie says that, because she and James’s dad both worked, James was in day care pretty early on, and he struggled a lot because the childcare workers did not have special training or understand how to work with him. James usually didn’t understand that he was messing up because he’s always been such a happy person, and he doesn’t tend to let things like that bother him. As soon as he started pre-K, James was redirected to the special education program. He was ultimately diagnosed with PDD and SPD.
Sadly, James’s dad, George, passed away from cancer at 27-years-old, when James was just 8. To add to that grief, they were living in a duplex a year after George died, when a neighbor left a candle burning that caught their unit on fire after traversing the attic. Even though everyone was home, no one was hurt. James’s baby book, which contained some of his only pictures with his dad, was in the fire and thankfully saved but for some water damage. He loves to pull it out and look through it so he can reconnect with his dad’s memory. They also miraculously saved the urn that contained George’s ashes.
Stephanie ultimately fell in love again, which is how the family came together to live in Powder Springs. Josh, James’s stepdad, says he thinks James is a good kid. His biggest dream for James is that he will be able to succeed at something. The family has many cats. James lists their names: Pongo, Dexter, Callie and Tango Too, who is the physical and spiritual reincarnation of a previously much-loved cat named Tango, killed by a car years ago.
A few weeks later, James is getting ready to go to work on one of those mornings when summer is starting to give way to fall. It's cool and fresh outside as James stands in the driveway. Mist hangs low over the fields that surround his neighborhood.
The nature of James’s disability, particularly his SPD, makes it impossible for James to drive because he cannot process information fast enough in order to respond in real-time on the open road. Because his parents are gone to work when it’s time for him to leave, James takes Lyft to work. His mom uses her mobile app to order the car service for him. James waits outside for his Lyft to arrive, checking his phone. The car will arrive in 17 minutes. Wait, that’s not right. It should be here sooner because he’s already been waiting for a while. He taps something into the phone. The first car has canceled the request, so Stephanie had to put in a second request. This puts James behind 15 minutes later than when he’d planned to arrive. Will he be late? No, because James always arrives nearly an hour before the store actually opens.
When the second Lyft driver arrives, he’s surprised to learn that James is a person with I/DD because he doesn’t present that way. The driver says indeed he does drive quite a lot of people who have disabilities through Lyft, and he’s glad to do so. “As long as you’re helping somebody,” he says, “it feels good, you know?” James has never had this particular driver before, but he does have some repeat drivers. He says sometimes they talk to each other, but sometimes they just quietly enjoy the ride together.
One of the most important aspects of James’s life is his job at Spirit Car Wash. He’s been working there for about a year, ever since he graduated from Roosevelt Warm Springs.
When he gets to work, James takes the extra time he’s built into his day to put away his lunch in the fridge—today it’s leftover sliders, which he offers to share with his boss—as well as to have a cup of coffee that’s brewing in the hospitality area of the car wash’s waiting room. When there’s time, James likes to chat or joke around with his co-workers. “Why do you have seven straws in your cup to stir your coffee with?” someone asks. “Because I can,” he returns, with an impish grin.
James’s primary job at Spirit Car Wash is vacuuming and prepping cars that come down his line. Before the business opens, however, he also takes care of some of the public spaces inside and empties out and refills buckets with clean water. He likes to help Miss Denise, a front desk staff member he’s particularly fond of, and he even personally washes her car.
Marc Jacobson, the general manager and James’s direct supervisor says that this young man is an example for his co-workers. “His work ethic is phenomenal,” Marc says. With a thoughtful look, Marc sits back in his chair in the management office and describes some of the ways that James is a model employee. He talks about the pride James takes in his work, even evidenced by the fact that James takes Lyft just to get to work every morning. While other employees will call in, unable to come to work because they “can’t find a ride,” Marc points to the fact that James is willing to pay for the ride share company’s services to get there. On the other hand, it’s important to note that this is literally the only way that James could get to work, and it’s a huge sacrifice to his meager paycheck. Another point that Marc makes is that James is always early, even on a day like today when his first Lyft didn’t show up. Marc has other employees who don’t show up until after the business has opened.
Stephanie reflects on James’s work and how meaningful it is to him. She talks about how important it is for James to get out of the house and feel like he’s really doing something. However, he does not make enough money at his current job to live independently. “He’s not going to sustain a living,” Stephanie says. “Anything that’s going to help him would be great because $7 an hour, 22 hours a week, it doesn’t cover enough.” It’s important to note that James' family did not know about the Medicaid waiver program until they became involved with this advocacy opportunity and had the chance to tell their story. Now they are in the process of researching and making early efforts for an application on James’s behalf.
The idea of advocacy is so important in the life of a person with I/DD. Marc says he believes people should be given the chance to work. If he could speak to a legislator, Marc would say, “Give them a chance. Give them a chance and just see what they can do! Rather than just shutting them out and saying, 'That’s not the kind of employee I want to have.'” Marc goes on to talk about how they took a leap of faith when they hired James, and now, a year later, Marc would hire several more Jameses if he could.
Writer: Shannon Turner, Photographer: Kelly Blackmon