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Training for lifeTraining for life

Burlington, Vermont's Healthy Living Market partners with a local nonprofit to hire and train employees with disabilities, building the store's community service and engagement.

Emery Cowan

December 30, 2013

3 Min Read
Training for life

At most grocery stores the employee-store relationship is pretty simple, right? Whether they’re loading shoppers’ bags or stocking produce, the employees do the job, get their paycheck and head home. But the partnership between a nonprofit and a natural grocery store in Burlington, Vt., is taking that model to a new level.

Fifteen years ago, Healthy Living Market began working with Project Hire, a local nonprofit that provides supported employment services to individuals with autism or developmental disabilities. The store hires and trains a handful of individuals nominated by Project Hire while the nonprofit provides the extra support its clients might need. The nonprofit works with more than 100 businesses whose support is crucial in promoting the long-term success of the nonprofit’s clients, says Karen Hussey, senior manager. For Healthy Living, the arrangement provides an opportunity to reach out and be more involved in the community, says Leo Zambrano, the store’s grocery manager.

Here, Zambrano answers a few questions about how the program works at Healthy Living and how other natural retailers can implement a similar program.

How do you work with Project Hire?

Leo Zambrano: The organization usually presents an employee to us and then it provides ongoing support depending on the needs of the employee. It can be anything from regular check-ins or, with people who have more immediate needs, the nonprofit will bring in a job coach to work alongside them.

How many Healthy Living employees are from Project Hire? 

LZ: It’s a small percentage. We have 150 employees and maybe five to 10 of them at any given time are from Project Hire.

What kind of jobs do Project Hire employees do and what is the payment structure like?

LZ: For the most part they have been in our cafe and grocery departments. In the cafe we have them working on the packing line and the cooking line and in the grocery department we have them doing stocking. They get the same hourly pay as other employees.

What benefit has it brought to the store?

LZ: It goes hand in hand with what we always do with our customer service, which is we try to treat everyone like family. When [a Project Hire employee] joins our team, he or she joins our family. When we work with guests in our store, they feel that.

Is there anything in particular your business has learned in the process?

LZ: [Project Hire employees] have taught us about what we can do better for service. In retail, because of the fast pace we work at, we sometimes forget to slow down and stop and help out. Having somebody through Project Hire on the team reminds us to slow down and to really work with [those employees].

How would you advise retailers who want to try something similar?

LZ: With any new project, it’s best to start slow. I think we did it step by step, starting with one person then adding another one and another one. It’s also best to find a nonprofit or company that’s willing to join with you and help you. A Project Hire employee is with a team member from the first time he or she is here and constantly provides support.

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