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— At the Carl's Jr. on Clairemont and Burgener, Michelle is on top of

everything. Conscious of every customer, she double-checks the cleanliness and efficiency of the staff. Although not the manager, the other employees treat her with the respect only a boss can command. Michelle is also mentally disabled.

"She is very alert and aware of what's going on around her," says restaurant manager Linda Hight. "She's really conscientious about her work. As a matter of fact, when one of my new hires does something wrong, she corrects them. She takes it very seriously. If she sees anyone come in [to refill] a cup that they got from the outside, she'll approach them. Where some people might just brush it off and say, 'Oh well, let 'em do it,' she'll at least tell the person in charge."

A graduate of Grossmont High School's special-education program, Michelle, 28, was trained by the East County branch of San Diego's Arc (formerly the Association of Retarded Citizens). She's worked at Carl's Jr. for six years. "Michelle was actually hired at another restaurant in El Cajon. She was hired at first through another program, and then we chose to keep her on. She's learned to do the dining room, the salad bar, a little bit of the kitchen prep, stuff like that. She's been a big help. She's friendly with everyone. The staff all love her."

Hight has managed several Carl's Jr. locations since Michelle was hired and always takes Michelle with her when she moves. "She's kind of attached to me after five years. She comes all the way from El Cajon to Clairemont on the trolley and the bus. It takes two hours each way, and she'll work five days each week, usually for five hours per day."

Michelle's biggest difficulty is accepting her own limitations. "She wants to move up, and she just doesn't have the capability. She wants to be a shift leader, and she doesn't understand that she does not have the ability to do deposits, and I can't leave her accountable for the entire restaurant. She just doesn't understand that. She's learned a little bit of cooking and cashiering, but she's never scheduled for those stations.

"She really tries hard. She wants to try different stuff. She's always willing to help everybody and do everything. She called in sick one day and everyone said, 'Oh no! Michelle's not here!' because she's just such a help. You don't have to tell her what to do -- she just does it. She's also conscientious about what other people are doing -- not that she likes to watch everybody -- she just really cares about her job and the store. When we're up for awards or an inspection, she looks at the store as a whole picture rather than just , 'Oh is my dining room clean?' If the kitchen needs to be mopped, she'll do it rather than some employees who probably don't care and do as little as possible. If I tell her to do something, it'll be done right."

The hard work and tough attitude reflect Michelle's independence. She lives with an uncle in a trailer in El Cajon, where a social worker checks in on her twice a month. "She's very self-sufficient," Hight says. "Sometimes I'll help her balance her checkbook or explain a payment or make a phone call once in a while, but not very often. I know she misses her mother and father -- they had to move to Arizona for a job opportunity, but she wanted to stay here and work at Carl's Jr."

Michelle beams with pride when asked about her work. "I worked at Pizza Hut for a little bit, but I liked it better here at Carl's Jr. I like the people, I like the customers, I like the service. I try to push myself very hard in everything I do." She is seldom bored on the long ride to work. "Actually, I have my own comic strips. I'll work on that. I enjoy doing a lot of things. In my spare time I go to church and do a lot of errands -- but I really like my cartoons."

The highlight of Michelle's career came in March of 1999 when she met Carl's Jr. founder, Carl Karcher, and delivered a speech in front of 300 people. As Hight recalls, it was at the Hyatt Hotel on Mission Bay, but Michelle corrects her: "It was at the Hilton Hotel on Mission Bay. For me, that was a dream come true. I did write out a speech, and I presented him with an award on behalf of people with disabilities. I got a standing ovation. I got hugs from people I didn't even know. I was very honored to do something like that.

"I thank Linda Hight for training me very well. If it wasn't for her, I don't know where I'd be today. She's one of my favorite bosses that I've ever had. I'm looking forward to going farther with my skills."

At the Vons market in Mission Hills, Mikey, 28, bags groceries two hours a day, four days a week. Because of his Down's syndrome, Mikey does not communicate as clearly as Michelle, but he works just as hard. Store manager Robert Goulding doesn't know where Mikey was trained. "He's worked here for four years. He was here when I got here." (Goulding recently transferred from another store). "I know that there's an agency involved in it, and he does have a job coach, but he's far enough along in his career that she doesn't actually come in unless we call her in and request her.

"He's worked out really well. His attitude is good as long as he stays focused. He's always willing to turn around and readjust his focus. Every day he interacts with customers -- in fact, he just received a letter not too long ago from a customer. She was very impressed with Mikey."

Mikey is well-liked by the staff, and they treat him like a brother. "Everybody likes him. Our store is like a family and he's just part of our family. He does everything a normal courtesy clerk would do. He bags groceries, interacts with customers. He does a lot of dusting and cleaning around the store. We like to keep him involved and interacting with the customers -- either up front or on the sales floor. He's not shy at all. He loves football. He's got season tickets for the Chargers. He's a big sports fan; he can tell you who won every game every week."

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