It’s Thursday afternoon at Mills Dining Hall, just after a busy lunch hour. Foot traffic has died down, and dirty plates, bowls, cups and silverware have piled up in the dishwashing room, waiting to be cleaned. It’s a task not many people would greet with gusto, but employee Devyn Servo happily scoops up the dinnerware, saying “Have a great day, guys!” to each and every student who leaves a dish.
Devyn is one of more than a dozen people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities who receive support or care from local agencies and either work or volunteer with SUNY Oneonta’s Sodexo/Oneonta Auxiliary Services (OAS) team in on-campus dining facilities. The partnerships are part of Sodexo USA’s SOAR (Sodexo Organization for disAbilities Resources) initiatives, which enrich communities by creating “a culture that embraces, values and fully utilizes persons with disabilities.”
In recognition of this work, Sodexo was nominated and chosen to receive a 2023 National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) Award from the state of New York in October.
“What sets Sodexo apart is that they focus on strengths, not barriers,” The Arc Otsego wrote in its nomination. “From tailoring job roles to individual skills to flexible work hours, they create a workplace that truly embraces and supports everyone. Their longstanding partnership with us at The Arc Otsego reflects a commitment to equity and empowerment.”
“I Want To Make Them Happy”
Currently, Sodexo employs eight people who receive support from The Arc Otsego and hosts an additional 10 Pathfinder Village students who shadow and assist in the dining halls. Some work as cashiers and greeters, some help with food preparation and service, and others help with cleanup and maintenance.
“I have worked here three years,” said Devyn Servo, who receives support from The Arc Otsego and works five days a week at Mills. “Knowing I can make people smile is the best part, I want to make them happy. I also like to give ideas to my boss about which foods I notice the students are eating or not. I have good ideas, and I really want to help make people happy.”
Debbie Palmeter, who also receives support from The Arc Otsego, has worked with Sodexo for 22 years. She is stationed at Wilsbach, doing everything from refilling drink dispensers and putting out dessert to laundering chef coats. She takes 25,000 steps a day.
“I know a lot of the students, which I really love,” Debbie said. “Sometimes they leave comments for me like ‘We love Debbie’ and ‘She’s a hard worker,’ which makes me feel so good. I never call out sick and like to stay busy. … I feel good about coming to work every day and being appreciated. I don’t know what I would do without this place!”
Hands-On Help for All
The 10 individuals from Pathfinder Village who work with Sodexo’s team are part of a 12-week program called “Career Specific Vocational Training.” For two hours per day, they take classes at Pathfinder Village on food or janitorial service and then get to apply their training at Wilsbach Dining Hall, where they help with meal preparation and cleaning tasks. At the end of the 12 weeks, a ceremony will celebrate their completion of the program.
“Not only has this program allowed for individuals to expand their skills for employment, but it has also created meaningful opportunities for inclusion amongst employees and college students,” said Pathfinder Village Director and Clinical Coordinator of Adult Services Layla Hazlett. “This partnership assisted participants to identify where they would like to work in the future and provides them with the entry level skills and confidence needed to enter the workforce.”
Sodexo Director of Operations Rebecca Molloy said the partnerships are just as helpful for the university.
“Our Arc Otsego and Pathfinder Village friends have been such a huge support, and we love having them here,” Molloy said. “They were having a tough time finding area businesses that could host individuals, and we were having trouble finding employees for the dining hall, so it was a perfect fit. We work hard to find the perfect role for each person, based on their abilities. They are valued members of our team and truly part of our family here.”