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Queens Chronicle

YAI workers are a force at US Open

45 people with autism and other disabilities help at the food village

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Posted: Thursday, September 5, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 1:04 pm, Thu Sep 5, 2013.

Plans are in the works for retractable roofs for two of the stadium courts; five-time US Open champion Roger Federer is a 7th seed and social media commentary is being delivered in real time for the first time on a wall near Louis Armstrong Stadium.

Much has changed over the years at the US Open tennis championships, but there’s one thing that remains as consistent as Serena William’s blistering first serve: the return of people with disabilities working in the food village.

Levy Restaurants, the official caterer of the US Open, has teamed up with The Corporate Source, a YAI Network member, to ensure that fans have clean tables awaiting them in the food village. The Corporate Source is an agency developed to provide jobs for people with disabilities through outsourcing arrangements.

YAI is a network of agencies offering people with intellectual and developmental disabilities a comprehensive range of services throughout the New York metropolitan area. Its mission is to help people with disabilities achieve the fullest life possible by creating new opportunities in residential, socialization and employment services.

This marks the 15th Open for the workers, many of whom have been fixtures at the tournament. Forty-five people with autism and other intellectual and developmental disabilities are keeping the high-traffic food village sparkling for the more than 700,000 fans.

Tashika Thompson, of Cambria Heights, is back for a 13th US Open. “I take a whole week of vacation time,” said the 35-year-old, who works full-time for The Corporate Source, maintaining the Nassau County Courthouse. She has been on that job for 11 years. “It’s a very nice atmosphere and I enjoy working here. I like assisting customers and working with other people.”

Only 14 percent of adults with developmental disabilities in the United States are employed competitively, according to a 2011 report from the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities.

“In tough economic times likes these, businesses like Levy Restaurants view The Corporate Source as a valuable business solution,” said Michael Kramer, Vice President of The Corporate Source. “Our workers are reliable, hardworking, and loyal. They appreciate the opportunity to showcase their abilities at such a high-profile venue.”

Nicki Harris, 33, of Springfield Gardens, paused for a moment when asked how many years she has worked at the US Open. “Eleven years,” she said confidently with a smile. “I like the atmosphere and excitement of the Open. I also like the money.”

Niki is fortunate to have another job. She has worked for 10 years doing food preparation at Uno Chicago Grill in Astoria.

Stephen Gates, a 31-year-old from St. Albans, is returning for his 14th season. “It’s a good job,” he said. “You get to interact with all the tennis fans. I like it because of all the people.”

For Stephen, working at the Grand Slam event takes on even more meaning. His mother, who passed away in 2008, had worked as a security guard at the Open. “We used to play tennis,” he recalled. “She liked tennis a lot.”

For some, the Open provides the first taste of employment.

Saher Shahid of Queens Village was busy scouting out dirty tables on the tournament’s opening day. “I’m looking forward to gaining new skills, interacting with customers and getting a paycheck,” she said. Shahid, 27, has been applying for many jobs in retail. “I’ve had a lot of interviews but I rarely hear back. When I do they say they want someone with more experience, but I don’t have a lot.”

Andrew Brown, her job coach at YAI’s Queens program, is confident that Saher will thrive at the open. “Her strength is interacting with people.” As for her job search? “Persistence is what I preach to our guys,” he said.

Lynn Berman works for YAI

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