Anthony Russo has much to be proud of. For nearly six years the 26-year-old, who is on the autism spectrum, has worked as a bakery assistant in the Stop & Shop of Madison NJ, making cookies, cupcakes, garlic bread and other baked goods. And even now, with the coronavirus health emergency making supermarkets one of society’s front lines, there’s no stopping him from going to work.
“He wants to go,” says Donna Russo, Anthony’s mom. ”He loves it. He LOVES IT.”
Anthony is following safety precautions with extra vigilance: washing hands frequently, wearing gloves, keeping areas clean. Now with one more important rule – keeping a distance from co-workers and shoppers.
Anthony and his mom had a long conversation about what the virus is and what it means. He recently told her, “I think I want to wear a mask.” As luck would have it, his mom was able to find some at the dollar store.
“He knows all about it, but he still wants to go. He’s very strict with following the rules. So now he keeps his distance, changes clothes as soon as he gets home, we wipe down his name tag and everything.” Donna adds, “I trust everyone at the store, they take very good care of him.”
Anthony’s bakery family is a big part of his life and he gets annoyed when he has to take a day off, his mom says. “The job is so important to him, to his independence, self-esteem. He just loves working.”
Anthony attended Whippany Park High School until age 21. In his last two years there he split his day between high school and a vocational school in Parsippany, where he earned his supermarket certificate.
When he left Whippany Park H.S., he was assigned a support coordination agency. They helped Anthony create a plan for adult life, including employment and outlining necessary life and social skills to work on. It was then that Anthony, with some assistance, was hired by Stop & Shop.
It was on a trial basis at first, but it just worked. He meshed with his boss, and the other store employees.
“I can’t say enough good things about Stop & Shop,” says Donna. “From the bakery to the store managers – they’re all so very good to him.”
The support coordinator helped Anthony settle into the job. They helped him “learn the ropes” and checked in frequently in the early days. Devin Hosbach, Manager of Career Development Services at Independence360 says, “We recognize the importance of initial and ongoing supports to secure job stability and success. These supports should be tailored to the individual. When the individual is ready, supports should fade, and the natural supports within the place of employment should kick in.”
Anthony is a living example of this, and no longer requires assistance from outside agencies. He has grown with the job as the years have passed, taking on new responsibilities and earning ever-growing respect from his co-workers and boss, Ray. It’s no wonder that he was named “Associate of the Month” earlier this year, they say, with his photo hung at the front of the store much to his – and everyone’s – excitement.
“I never in my wildest dreams thought we’d get here,” says Donna. “Anthony didn’t talk until he was six or seven, and it was difficult to understand him. To come this far and have this is everything.”
“I’m very grateful. Anthony humbles me. He teaches me it’s the simple things that matter.” ~ Donna Russo
To people at Independence360, a program for adults on the autism spectrum and related disabilities which Anthony attends several times a week, his dedication to his job is no surprise.
“Anthony is hard working, kind, and genuine. He is proud of his job, his family, and his friendships.” says Devin Hosbach, Manager of Career Development Services at Independence360.
While he was settling into Stop & Shop, Anthony’s family wanted to find someplace where he could engage socially. Independence360 was the perfect match for Anthony.
It’s worked wonderfully for Anthony and the family, giving him social independence and friends outside of work, plus lessons in necessary life skills. Though Independence360 offers employment services, it is the Day Habilitation program that Anthony participates in, which helps him to balance his adult life.
“Dinner trips with friends, games nights, weekend getaways… all the things young adults want to experience. He’s done so many different things I never expected. It’s just making his world so much more well-rounded,” says Donna.
With the Independence360 campus closed due to the COVID-19 crisis, Anthony and his mom appreciate the steps the program has taken to keep the adults active and in touch with each other.
“He’s on Zoom with so many different people! For classes, for socializing – now he’s doing yoga!” Donna laughed. “I heard ‘OOOOOOHM’ and went downstairs to find him in a yoga pose.”
And Donna is grateful for the support I360 has also given her family.
“When you’re dealing with this every day, there might be things that you miss and they are so helpful,” she says. “For me, everyone who works there – I tip my hat to all of you. Sometimes you think adults with special needs would be forgotten, but there they’re not forgotten.”
During this COVID-19 crisis, support and services for students and clients like Anthony may be in jeopardy. Please help us ensure our programs, like Independence360, can continue their mission by visiting relief.spectrum360.org.
Lisa Crouch is the Assistant to the Public Information Officer. Prior to working at Spectrum360, she worked at Yahoo, MSN, The Bergen Record, and other media outlets. She has a BA in English Literature from Columbia University. She is the proud aunt of an Academy360 Lower School student. In her off time, Lisa is a digital artist and writer.