Lakewood, OH—In many stores, a job opens up, applications come in, new employees are selected, they’re briefly trained and away they go. In some stores, training goes a step further to maybe a monthly educational seminar. Nature’s Bin, based here, takes training 10 steps further, however, by making it the store’s mission to hire, train, mentor and support employees with a variety of disabilities.

Nature’s Bin is operated by Cornucopia, Inc., a non-profit that helps people with disabilities “develop skills and confidence leading to sustainable employment.” Cornucopia was founded in 1975 by Brian Daw and Anne McEvoy. “The hope was to create a place where people with disabilities could learn job skills and work in the community; quite a novel idea in 1975,” says Nancy H. Peppler, executive director of Nature’s Bin.

Cornucopia’s original store, “The Bin,” offered training to 12 people with developmental disabilities every year. Today, Cornucopia helps upward of 200 individuals with special needs (physical or cognitive) learn work and social skills every year.

The 6,000-ft2natural products store might seem like any other independent retailer if a shopper ran in for a quick trip. But those who shop in the store a little longer would see an incredible training and mentorship program.

Individuals (many referred to Work Adjustment training programs by the Ohio Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation or the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities) are first given an assessment over the course of several days. They meet with a case manager at the store and develop an individualized plan for their training. Then, they work side-by-side a full-time staff member across many departments in a “real-work, real-world learning environment,” says Peppler. They might learn how to stock shelves, run the register, clean the refrigerator cases or master another visible job.

“[Trainees] work on a very individualized program to learn skills related to their personal goals for employment,” adds Peppler. These skills could be as simple as learning proper workplace behavior or as involved as how to bake and prepare foods for food service in the store’s neighboring industrial state-of-the-art kitchen. Depending on their skills and goals, most trainees work for four to eight weeks, and sometimes, depending on their progress, are hired to stay on and work even longer.

“They are paid minimum wage, and are involved in most aspects of daily store or site operations and there are frequent opportunities to practice social interactions,” states Peppler.

It’s not always an easy endeavor. Peppler states, “It can be difficult at times to find meaningful experiences for our trainees when they come with such a variety of abilities.” For instance, she speaks of a bright, young trainee who is fantastic at repackaging bulk items. He’s also blind. This makes finding opportunities for him to work out on the floor a challenge.

But, Nature’s Bin wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s who we are…It’s part of our life blood,” says Peppler.

Many regular shoppers tell Nature’s Bin that part of why they choose to visit the store is because they love this aspect of the store’s mission. Many full-time staffers feel the same way. “Connections with trainees are really important to a lot of our staff, and the reason why they want to work for us and not another grocery store—even one that might pay them a little bit more,” says Peppler.

The only downside of Nature’s Bin’s program is having to say goodbye to trainees that have become part of the family. But the situation is bittersweet, as many go on to interesting work situations in retail, healthcare, hotel or food service jobs.

One example is Natalie, who started in Nature's Bin in 2006 with a two-week work assessment followed by s
The skills Natalie learned at Nature's Bin have helped her be successful in her job at a global plumbing supply business.
even months of work adjustment training. “Much of Natalie's work centered on packaging products for the grocery and produce departments,” says Peppler. “She learned to package products, heat, seal, label and stock.”

Peppler says her outgoing, engaging personality “made her a welcome addition to every department.” For the past nine years, she has used these skills as part of a packaging team for an international plumbing supply business.

Having served people with disabilities for over 40 years, Nature’s Bin has changed the lives of thousands of people with disabilities, just like Natalie.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine Online 2/1/2016