Donations allow disabled teen to keep his job

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Joe is back in business.

Moved by the plight of a disabled teen-ager who faced the loss of a job, Marylanders called his boss yesterday and put up enough money to keep him on the payroll of an Anne Arundel nature center for another year.

Disfigured by a genetic disorder and abandoned by his parents at age 6, Joe Sanderson saw his confidence blossom this summer when the center, run by Anne Arundel county schools, offered him his first paying job. The 19-year-old was hired as a cafeteria aide, expected to do little more than fill salt shakers and napkin dispensers.

Within weeks, however, Joe proved that he could guide an entire cafeteria of children through lunch, from setup to cleanup. He wove himself into the fabric of the Arlington ECHO Outdoor Education Center, endearing himself to students with his spontaneous renditions of pop tunes and offering himself up as an example of hidden potential.

But the funds that covered his $6-an-hour, 20-hour-a-week paycheck were set to dry up this month. This threatened to send Joe, who also has mild mental retardation, into a job market where prospective employers saw his disabled limbs and stopped returning his calls.

After yesterday's front-page story about Joe in The Sun, more than 20 phone calls and e-mails poured in from people wanting to help. They called the newspaper, the county school system and the nature center, a spot by the Severn River in Millersville that teaches children about the environment.

By 8:30 a.m., two donors who asked for anonymity - one an Anne Arundel County family with a disabled child, the other a Baltimore charitable group - had donated $6,000 each. The first $6,000 will be used to cover Joe's pay for a year. The center will use the other $6,000 to create a comparable position in the cafeteria for another student with disabilities.

'Positive nature'

Other pledges ranged from $25 to $1,200. The donors ranged from a vacationing businessman and a retired nurse to an 11-year-old girl who met Joe at the center last week and a nun at a Cockeysville church. All told, the pledges have neared $15,000.

"It was just the positive nature of his experience, the fact that he went beyond expectations, and that he just figured these things out on his own, which is just marvelous," said Kenneth Greene, a Baltimore physician with an autistic son. Greene, who called the newspaper to ask how to help, referred to Joe's modest paycheck and said, "It just seems like such a small amount of money, which can do great things for this young man."

Stephen G. Barry, the director of the nature center, said Joe showed up to work as usual yesterday, helping run lunch for a group of student leaders from Old Mill High School, where Joe is a special education student. Marveling at the presence of a TV camera and the sight of his face on the front page of a newspaper, Joe poured out his feelings to the 60 students seated around the cafeteria tables.

"What I've learned is when someone gives to you, it's important you give back," Joe recalled saying.

Joe, who lives in Millersville, said he would give back through jobs, such as the one he has now, that cater to children.

"He was four feet off the ground," Barry said of Joe's spirits yesterday. "It's just been for him an emotional roller coaster. He's never had any kind of attention like this. He's never had a success like this."

'To give back'

Though summer camps will leave the center this month, county students come through nearly every day of the school year to learn about ecosystems, pollution and human impacts on the environment. Thanks to the infusion of donations, Joe will still be around to help serve lunch.

The school system has incorporated Joe's 20-hour workweek into his customized education plan so he can continue working - and growing - at the nature center while moving toward graduation in 2005.

"I feel really happy that I finally got a job, that I can keep on going and still keep on teaching the kids," he said. "I just want to thank everybody. I'm just going to give back with all my friendship, to all my friends, and make it up to them."

Barry said donations would be set aside exclusively for Joe's paycheck, or, if a donor requests, to create another cafeteria job for a disabled student.

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