When autism works
Wearing a white shirt paired with black pants and a blue apron, 20-year-old Kalvin Roa stands by the entrance of a supermarket as he welcomes customers with a warm smile, open arms and shopping baskets.
“Happy morning Maam, Sir… welcome to SM Hypermarket Jmall,” says Kalvin in a snappy greeting to customers four days a week as a supermarket worker in this mall since April.
Prior to his work here, Kalvin was assigned at the Savemore Market in Park Mall, Mandaue City, from July to October 2017.
At first glance, Kalvin looks like an ordinary supermarket worker, who goes about the daily tasks of bagging groceries and returning stray items.
But Kalvin and his friend, Kerstian Menguito, 24, are anything but ordinary employees.
They are persons with autism (PWA) who have been given the chance to be integrated in mainstream supermarket work with their exceptional memory and keen sense of spatial reasoning.
Under a collaborative program between SM Markets and the Autism Society Philippines (ASP), Kalvin and Kerstian are among 61 PWAs working in 17 SM markets all over Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.
At SM Savemore Market Parkmall, Van Aisley Lopez and Keith Nicolas “Keino” Hubahib, also work like Kalvin and Kerstian four hours a day on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.
Kalvin and Kerstian work from 8 a.m. to 12 while Van and Keino work from 1 p.m. to 5 pm. They enjoy 15-minute breaks and receive minimum wage.
Autism is a lifetime neuro-development condition characterized by challenges in social skills, communication and repetitive behavior.
It is also a spectrum condition which ranges from people who need help in many aspects of everyday life to those who are capable of independent living.
In a statement, SM said Kalvin and his fellow PWAs are told to report on weekdays except Wednesdays — the day scheduled for counseling sessions with ASP and its community partners to ensure the welfare and well-being of the PWA workers.
Kalvin’s mother, ASP Cebu Chapter Vice President Maria Carlina “Babylin “ Roa told Cebu Daily News that the AutiSM Work program began in 2016 when ASP, under the leadership of president Mona Veluz, pioneered in the PWA immersion program designed to nurture a culture of workplace inclusion.
ASP screens and identifies all participants to the program.
For SM, their personnel undergo sensitivity training under ASP to ensure that the staff understands the behavior of persons with autism.
SM also customizes task assignments depending on the PWA’s strengths.
“SM training personnel have been trained on how to properly assist the PWAs throughout their duties and have designed training modules that integrate autism-specific accommodations,” said SM in a statement.
The PWAs wear “Autism-OK” badges while there are store posters to inform shoppers about the ongoing program.
That Thursday morning when CDN visited SM Hypermarket at J Centre Mall, Kalvin made an announcement on the public address (PA) system informing customers about the program.
He also led the praying of the Angelus.
Babylin, his mother, runs Kite Strings Developmental Center Inc. — a school which aims to improve the quality of life of children with autism and other related developmental disorders.
The educational center also supports families by addressing their special needs through comprehensive programs that will help maximize the PWAs full potential.
Seeing how Kalvin enjoys his work, Babylin said she is more than thankful for the opportunity to expose her son to an environment where he can improve his social skills.
“It makes me very happy to see him happy in the work that he does,” she said of Kalvin who was diagnosed with autism when he was only two years and four months.
Kalvin, Kerstian, Van and Keino are described by their fellow workers as energetic and active.
One bagger at SM Hypermarket said that he was inspired by their enthusiasm in accomplishing their tasks.
“They do not waste any time. They are constantly on the move. You would not even know that they have special needs because there are tasks that they can do better than the people whom we call ‘normal,’ the bagger said in Cebuano.
“They inspire to us to do better in our jobs because if they can do it, there is no reason that others can’t,” he added.
For his part, Kerstian said he will continue to work hard so he will improve in doing his job.
“I like my job a lot. I am now able to assist customers. I know the work now and I will keep on improving because this work makes me happy,” he said.
Kalvin, on the other hand, is known in the store as the “boy with a handsome smile.”
In his work at the supermarket, Kalvin has made it a habit to make sure that the checkout counters, baskets and trolleys are always kept clean.
He enjoys displaying fruits and vegetables and pricing them.
He also collects stray grocery items and supplies eco bags, paper bags and carton dividers to each counter.
Meanwhile, significant improvements in the boys’ socialization and motor skills have been observed.
These improvements resulted from the collective efforts of ASP, SM management and personnel, the PWAs’ parents and a young coach named “Teacher Cel” who is always around when the boys are on duty.
(To be continued)
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