The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) _ The place is big, busy and neon-lit. Mike Groleau had never spent time at a racino before, much less worked for one. He instantly felt overwhelmed.

“Everything was going over my head,” Groleau said.

But he had a strategy, and he reminded himself to stick with it: Be honest. Help them understand your disability. Tell them you’re going to give them 100 percent. They just might have to be a little easy with you at first.

That was about seven weeks ago, and already Groleau smiles at the memory.

“I’m very comfortable now,” he said of his new job at Scioto Downs Racetrack & Casino.

At 39, the Circleville resident is competitively employed for the first time in his life. He’s among hundreds of Ohioans with developmental disabilities who have received additional help finding community jobs since Gov. John Kasich launched the state’s Employment First directive two years ago.

The policy aims to sharply decrease Ohio’s reliance on segregated settings and workshops by mandating a preference for community employment. State officials set a goal of increasing community employment by 10 percent, to 7,727 working-age adults, by June 30. As of Dec. 30, it was up by about 8.5 percent.

“We’re pretty pleased with that number in terms of ramping up the initiative,” said Kristen Helling, who leads the Employment First project through the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities.

Outreach to employers is a big part of the initiative.

Many worry they won’t have enough time to devote to training employees with developmental disabilities. A few hear the word disability “and tend to imagine the extreme,” said Patrick Kilbane, a transition-services specialist for the Pickaway County Board of Developmental Disabilities.

Kilbane works to reveal the benefits to both sides. He helped Groleau and four other board clients get jobs in food-service operations at Scioto Downs, putting together video resumes, a job fair and orientation sessions.

The racino wanted to keep employee turnover rates down. Kilbane explained that Groleau and the others, once settled, were likely to be dependable and loyal.

“Training is the most-expensive process for any company, and they had job coaches. With no high turnover, that kills two birds with one stone,” said Ashley Redmon, the advertising and public-relations manager at Scioto Downs.

Sep Adams, manager of food and beverage operations, said his new employees have handled the racino’s pace and bustle just fine. Groleau works in the employee and customer cafes.

“It’s a casino, it’s busy, and I didn’t want to set anyone up for failure,” Adams said. “But I was totally open to it, and it’s been great. Mike is awesome.”

Kilbane said the match is a score on many levels.

“All five have access to full benefits. In our field, we don’t often see this,” he said. “I was blown away. Benefits are almost never on the table.”

Many programs are under the Employment First umbrella. Groleau is the first from Pickaway County to be hired through a partnership between the state’s Department of Developmental Disabilities and Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities, which provides counselors to help people move from segregated settings to community employment.

“A lot of employers turn you down” or they give a “one-day chance” instead of a week or two, Groleau said.

He is glad the racino let him prove himself. “Being in the community is so much better. My co-workers _ and the food _ are just the best.”