October 17, 2018

ROSIES employees have ‘diverse abilities’ and are ready to work

Bags of potato chips have been hung on hooks, sodas are on ice, the tip jar is at the ready. Customer satisfaction surveys are in place, and there’s a beanbag-toss game on the sidewalk — an added touch designed to get patrons to linger and get acquainted. 

It’s Wednesday morning, and — hot diggity dog! — the employees at the Removing Obstacles, Supporting Innovation, Empowerment and Sustainability (ROSIES) Foundation can hardly wait for the lunch rush at their hot dog stand on Washington Boulevard in the heart of the Culver City arts district.

The employees, who range in age from 20 to 36, have a range of developmental disabilities including autism spectrum disorders and Down syndrome. As far as ROSIES is concerned, however, they have “diverse abilities,” not disabilities, and they are trained, enthusiastic and ready to work. 

The day’s job responsibilities have been clearly defined, although many of the 12 ROSIES employees can alternate shifts. Brett Viker and Naayin Akyempon team up to work the food. William Sachs is the greeter, taking orders and handling cash and credit cards. Joey Schwartzman, the team’s all-purpose fix-it man, oversees the overall cart management and assists customers with surveys. 

Naayin Akyempon, a ROSIES employee, prepares a hot dog for a hungry customer. 

Nick Miller is on the setup and cleanup crew. Adam Michel helps guests hone their beanbag aim. Inside the foundation’s nearby office, Ezra Fields-Meyer and Miya Senzaki are at their computers working on a children’s book and Web content designed to help communicate ROSIES’ story and mission.

ROSIES employee William Sachs works as a greeter at the hot dog stand.

Plans for the new ROSIES hot dog cart include lunchtime appearances on the Culver City corner four days a week before moving to a spot near the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and La Jolla Avenue. In May, the nonprofit expects to launch an ice cream truck housed in a specially converted school bus that will be available for parties.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the national unemployment rate for adults with disabilities may hover around 80 percent. But Lee Chernotsky, ROSIES’ founder and chief empowerment officer, takes a more optimistic view of his crew’s employment prospects, and he runs his nonprofit accordingly.

“Every single minute of every day, our work is trying to revise and combat that statistic,” Chernotsky said. “Not just by sitting in a classroom, but by creating on-the-job experience and work opportunities where people are getting paid. Everyone’s getting a paycheck for being here today.”

Chernotsky spent more than 16 years working in the special needs community, including stints in the Tikvah program at Camp Ramah. At the end of 2014, after doing some early work to help The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles launch the Los Angeles Jewish Abilities Center, Chernotsky left to start his own nonprofit. 

With an MBA in nonprofit management from American Jewish University and experience as an entrepreneurial fellow through Federation’s PresenTenseLA initiative, he developed ROSIES. The nonprofit’s name and inspiration was Chernotsky’s grandmother, known as Bubba Rose, who continuously reminded young Lee that his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) should be viewed as a strength rather than an impediment.

“I’ve always found it very empowering to be in a mentoring position,” Chernotsky said. “Growing up with ADHD and finally coming to terms with [the realization that], ‘All right, I can’t do everything myself. I need to ask for help sometimes,’ was very humbling. These are the cards that [we have] been dealt and we’re trying to figure out how to play poker with them the best way we can.” 

Last year was ROSIES’ first year of operation, and it focused largely on fundraising and training, setting up an intensive, eight-month program to provide vocational training and work readiness skills for its enlistees. The nonprofit graduated two classes of its Collaborative, Respected, Empowered Workers (CREW) college. Now, with social enterprise initiatives such as the food ventures ramping up, Chernotsky said the foundation’s emphasis has shifted to providing employees paid, on-the-job experience.

“We’re giving people a job opportunity with what we call a reasonable learning curve,” Chernotsky said. “The idea was if we give people work and they try it out for 30 to 90 days like any other job, we really kind of level the playing field.”

Longtime friends, local businesses and community members have jumped in to help ROSIES find its footing. They’ve donated supplies, office space, professional expertise and, at times, an extra hand.

Jeff Rohatiner, owner of Jeff’s Gourmet Sausage Factory, is leasing the hot dog cart to ROSIES for $1 per month. Gerard Jiron, purchasing manager at the New School of Cooking, met weekly with ROSIES employees, giving them jobs around the school and helping them prepare for their ServSafe food-handling certification tests. Neighboring businesses on Washington Boulevard have helped with advice on graphics and providing meeting space. ROSIES received key funding from its founding board chairman, Silicon Valley philanthropist Jeffrey Sobrato.

The ROSIES Foundation hot dog cart is run by employees with a range of developmental disabilities. 

At the March soft launch of the hot dog cart, many of these friends dropped in to grab a wiener, toss a beanbag and share the good will. Whether arranging blooms for Valentine’s Day or gathering for karaoke, ROSIES events tend to inspire community building, said Vee Ravana, who operates the Studio by Dark artisanal gallery next door to the nonprofit.

“They come in to work, and they never lose their enthusiasm, which is hard to do when you have a job,” Ravana said of the ROSIES employees. “They’re so warm and welcoming. They’re family, basically.” 

Especially enthusiastic is Sachs, who runs down the price list ($4 for a hot dog, $6 for a combo including chips and a drink) while informing customers that condiments and surveys can be found nearby. Of all the jobs on the cart, Sachs considers himself a natural fit for the greeter position because he socializes well with customers. Sachs said he hopes someday to work in movies or with children.

“I’m working on backup plans,” Sachs said. “I like to write, so I’d like to hopefully be a writer or have some kind of creative job. Hopefully I can pursue my dreams and do some kind of career goal.”

When lunch came to an end, the employees brought all the supplies indoors and convened at the ROSIES conference table to debrief, review the customer satisfaction surveys, and consider which part of the work day went well and what could be improved in the future. 

Sachs felt as if he developed a strong rhythm with customers as the shift progressed. Michel enjoyed the beanbag toss, but decided he might be willing to take a turn on the cart next time. Viker worried that, while simultaneously cooking and handling food, he took on too many greeter duties. 

“I might come off as too much of an attention grabber,” he said. “I am the kind of guy who likes recognition and power. It’s a line I have to walk.”

Chernotsky noted that Viker and Akyempon were splendidly in sync handling the hot dog orders.

“I feel like we knocked that one out of the park,” Viker agreed.