Bryson Leneker is a snappy dresser with a cool haircut, fashionable glasses, pressed jeans and carefully tied shoes. He is standing on a safety ladder at the Marvin Road Home Depot. In the process of vigorously cleaning the inside of a kitchen cabinet display, he pops his head out.
“Hi. I was waiting for you.” His group of co-workers giggle as he deftly jumps down to the floor. Bryson was born with trisomy 21, commonly referred to as Down syndrome. He is celebrating his one-year anniversary at the store and his 22nd birthday. Bryson is part of the close group of workers who celebrate one another’s birthdays and share their lunch breaks together. The only difference? Bryson has a job coach, Casey Smith, who shadows his work.
Bryson’s father, Kevin Leneker, spent a lot of time at the Olympia Home Depot store when he worked in construction. The store manager, Kevin Finger, took the time to help him with different projects. One weekend at a Special Olympics swim meet, they found themselves sitting next to one another.
“That’s my son,” Leneker said pointing to Bryson.
“I want him to come work for me,” Finger replied watching Bryson enthusiastically waving to his father.
Finger transferred to the Marvin Road store and developed a new team. He encourages his employees to find a balance between life and work. His other advice? Give back. Support those who need it. The team at the store attends Bryson’s swim meets, baseball and basketball tournaments. They make congratulatory signs for him. When they sign up for the Down Syndrome Buddy Walk, Finger gives them the day off.
Bryson likes to wipe down the lawnmowers and the appliances. “I did all of this,” he points at the row of gleaming refrigerators. “I like my job,” he says quickly. “I love my job,” he says more slowly. “I am,” he pauses and speaks carefully, “I am passionate about my job.” We all look away. It would have been too hard to look at each other.
Finger says the idea to help people with special needs started when he met 78-year-old Dwayne Turman, a fixture at the Olympia store for 20 years. The frail man with disabilities dreamed of riding a motorcycle. Finger knew of Turner’s wish and was passed one day on the highway by a motorcycle he knew could carry the man safely. He followed the motorcycle, gesturing at it to pull over. When the rider heard Finger’s story, they scheduled a meeting. The greatest smile of Turman’s life was while riding that motorcycle.
Jonathan Mitchell, also an employee with special needs at the Marvin Road store, loves wrenches. He struggled with the dexterity it took to use tools, so he and his father signed up for a free workshop at the store. Of the hundreds of people who started the workshop, four hours later Mitchell and his father were still practicing with the tools. Mitchell mastered the wrench and the screw driver. He is now responsible for each safety gate on every aisle in the store. He tightens screws, replaces stripped ones, and checks all the chains.
Leneker and Bryson’s mother, Rochelle Sokol, pushed Bryson to succeed from the time he was a baby. They ingrained in their son there was nothing he could not accomplish. Bryson attended local schools, kindergarten through twelfth grade, and graduated in 2013. After graduation he was selected to attend Project SEARCH, a nine month school-to-work program for students with disabilities. It is located on The Evergreen State College campus. The program, in place since 2009, is a collaborative effort between Morningside, The Evergreen State College and the Olympia School District. It is funded in part by the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.
“Project SEARCH, I think, is part of what made Bryson who he is. They took it a step further for all of the students. It taught them everyday life skills that helped make them independent,” Sokol comments. “Bryson now sets an alarm on his phone to remind him about things. He also knows how to take the bus. He took the Intercity Transit from east Olympia to Evergreen every day.”
While attending Project SEARCH, the plan for Bryson and others was to develop life skills from classes, job shadowing, and internships with the goal to compete for jobs. Students learn how to communicate, ask questions, and speak to individuals and groups.
Most companies do not have a company-wide commitment to hiring people with disabilities but Home Depot’s Kevin Finger does. Other local stores have contacted Finger for advice. They now have processes in place to welcome employees with special needs and provide them with work that is important, meaningful, and skill-oriented.
Bryson is an employee like all the others at his beloved Marvin Road Home Depot. He calls Finger from the store phone when he has questions or just to say hi. He texts Finger to keep in touch outside of work. But Finger and Leneker are teaching him about other parts of life. “Bryson texts Kevin, but he sometimes goes a week without texting his girlfriend. We’re both helping him with that,” Leneker says with a laugh.
One of Finger’s greatest legacies may be the values he instills in Bryson Leneker and Jonathan Mitchell. Both young men have learned the importance of giving back as others have done for them. They volunteer at Team Depot events for disabled veterans helping with activities and showing compassion for the veterans’ struggles.
At the end of our interview, I hear Bryson chiding one of his peers, Ray. “Now don’t drop any more of those peanut shells on the ground. I have to clean them up.” He smiles and gives me a professional nod.