On a brisk February morning Michael Gallo is getting ready to welcome customers at the Nalley Fresh restaurant in Hunt Valley.
Clad in a baseball cap and crisp, white Nalley Fresh smock, Gallo, 22, smiles easily as he jokes with Carlos Harris.
"Mike is the man," said Harris, one of Nalley Fresh's partners.
"He's so genuine; the customers see how hard he tries. It draws in customers."
"I like my job here," said Gallo, who started working at Nalley Fresh as a dining room coordinator in June 2016. "I recognize some of the customers."
Gallo, who lives in Hunt Valley, is one of close to 70 adults with intellectual or cognitive disabilities working at Maryland businesses thanks to Penn-Mar Human Services, a Freeland-based nonprofit agency that provides services for families and individuals with disabilities or human service needs.
"We help people with intellectual disabilities become active and productive in their community," said Greg Miller, Penn-Mar's president and CEO. "There are amazing opportunities available for people, even those with the most severe disabilities."
For Penn-Mar, it means working with businesses to educate them about how people with disabilities can adapt to the workplace. The agency uses what it calls "customized integrative employment" to ensure people with disabilities find the right job, and that employers know about the capabilities of people with disabilities.
"We want to make sure it's a good fit for the business and for the individual," said Gary Madigan, Penn-Mar's career counselor for Maryland.
"The individuals we support at Penn-Mar are happier clocking in than clocking out. They want to be productive members."
Approximately 90 individuals are placed in businesses by Penn-Mar in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Most work an average of 15 hours a week and earn at least minimum wage. Penn-Mar has collaborated with the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce to educate businesses about the value of hiring people with disabilities.
"You can't look at this like a wage for productivity. It's an enhancement for the whole organization," said Greg Nalley, CEO and founder of Nally Fresh. Hiring a person with disabilities has taught Nalley and his staff to be more compassionate, the CEO said. "Mike has brought us together."
To date, Penn-Mar has provided workers for employers such as Bank of America, NAPA, ShopRite and PetSmart. Job responsibilities can range from data entry to customer service.
Penn-Mar typically spends up to three months in an "exploration and discovery process" in which individuals are assessed for job readiness, said Madigan, who then meets with employers to "let them know exactly what we do as a company and what we stand for."
While most people stay on their jobs for three to four years, one individual has worked at PetSmart for close to 20 years.
"Sometimes it's a person's first job," Madigan said. "And we've had individuals leave for better opportunities."
Penn-Mar was founded in 1981 in Freeland by a group 12 concerned parents from northern Baltimore County and southern Pennsylvania who needed continuing services for their children with intellectual disabilities.
Providing services for families whose children "age out" of the social services system was the impetus for starting Penn-Mar.
"Today there are programs for people with disabilities," said Miller, the CEO. "Back then there were no programs in the public schools. Not having productive activities was the impetus."
Over the years, Penn-Mar has expanded its services to include administering day programs, providing in-home services and organizing respite care for families. The organization, which has a $30 million budget, also operates residential homes, 28 of which are located in Baltimore County. On a daily basis, Penn-Mar provides services to about 300 individuals ages 21 and older.
Being headquartered in Freeland is important to Penn-Mar's mission to assist people in northern Maryland and Pennsylvania. "We never felt the need to move 20 miles south," Miller said. "One of the barriers is taking people to and from work, in the northern county there's no [public] transportation."
In January, Penn-Mar announced it received a $1.5 million gift from Kay and Jim Pitts to establish The Michael James Pitts Endowment for the Advancement of Direct Support Professionals. Direct-service professionals are cooks, drivers, home-health aides and anyone else who provides "hands-on support," Miller said.
Miller has a special connection with the Pitts family. Their son, Michael Pitts, now 38, lives at a Penn-Mar facility. When Michael was 7 years old he lived with Miller and his wife for two years at their Carroll County home. "Working with Michael was both very difficult because of his challenges and at the same time amazingly rewarding," Miller said.
Penn-Mar is one of the only groups in Maryland that administers a state-supported Low Intensity Support Services grant that provides up to $2,000 to eligible individuals for services.
Back at Nalley Fresh, the lunch rush is about to start. Greg Nalley watches Michael Gallo chat with his fellow employees. "A lot of employees haven't been around people with special needs," said Nalley, who hires employees who have suffered from trauma or addiction and need get back on their feet. "We have to show patience."
Having Gallo on board is an inspiration to others, Carlos Harris said. "It shows other employees that if Mike can do this, they also do this to become productive members of society. Mike is like family now."