The young man walks with a purpose across the dining room, stopping at a table to shake hands with a stranger.
“How are you?” he asks with relish, then moves on to other business.
He enjoys his work at the Angel Guardians complex near 156th Street and West Maple Road. But his path to the job — not to mention talking to strangers or even meeting someone’s gaze — was anything but easy.
Social workers found the mentally challenged man living in a garage with little heat, said Megan Malone, operations director at Angel Guardians. He wasn’t very verbal, but he did tell AngelWorks staffers that he ate cat food to survive. He needed help.
He got his firm handshake, a more outgoing manner and ongoing vocational training at Angel Guardians, a nonprofit group that helps adults with Down syndrome, autism-related issues, head injuries and other mental challenges.
The group started in 2005 with a thrift store and the VSP (Very Special People) Club, a Friday and Saturday night social gathering. Omahans Dan and Jeanne Malone — Megan’s parents — founded VSP so their youngest son, Tim, could make friends and get some social interaction.
They had investigated other options and were left asking, “Is that all there is?” Megan said.
Now 25 and thriving, Tim didn’t have a lot of friends after he graduated from school and had become more isolated at home as his eight siblings grew up and pursued their own interests.
Part of Tim’s success came through AngelWorks, the group’s two-year-old nontraditional vocational center that offers training in art, cooking, woodworking and other creative pursuits. Students make products such as ceramic tile coasters, cloth bags, jewelry and other beaded items, biscotti and dog biscuits.
They weave old T-shirts into rag rugs and work with volunteer artists from the community on sewing and drawing projects. They offer all the items onsite for a suggested donation and also have a woodworking center and store in another location.
The group — with an annual operating budget of just over $1 million — is poised to start a capital campaign in March to expand its facilities. It fills a niche in west Omaha, because most vocational training centers are in other parts of the city. And the people behind it dream about building a Boys Town-like community where those with special needs can live and work, Megan Malone said.
Angel Guardians needs about $300,000 for renovations to expand its workshops and the kitchen in the Free Lunch Cafe, where students learn to be servers, hosts, dishwashers and cooks. They also bake: Valentine’s cookies last week and ongoing batches of dog treats. They want to expand the dog biscuit sales at off-site locations.
The cafe is open to the public — one recent patron, raving about the soup, said she comes almost daily. That gives students valuable experience dealing with customers.
“We don’t want special needs people to be hidden from the community,” Malone said. “We want it to be an opportunity for others to interact with special needs people.”
To that end, Angel Guardians is working to increase its visibility. Jill Sauser joined the organization in November as its director of marketing and development, and she hopes to plan events — fundraisers and other activities — that haven’t been done before in Omaha.
Traditions won’t be forgotten, however. The VSP Club had its yearly Valentine’s Day dance Friday, a chance for existing students to celebrate and for potential students and parents to check the place out. About 400 area students will graduate from high school special education this year and will need a transition into the work world, Malone said.
AngelWorks started with two students and now has 104. It can accommodate about 10 more right now.
Malone credits the quick growth to programs that go beyond the repetitive warehouse work offered at some vocational centers. In fact, she said, AngelWorks has been an inspiration: At least one other center in Omaha now offers similar training.
The organization has about 30 employees, including several retirees who drive students in buses each day. Like Malone, many of the workers have a family member with special needs.
Some employees have social work backgrounds, but others are like cafe manager Jerry Graber, who has more than 20 years of food service experience. The organization has a ratio of one staffer for every six students.
The group also welcomes volunteers, though regular helpers have to go through a background check.
Lori Sandhoefner of Fort Calhoun, for instance, volunteers three days a week while her adopted son gets vocational training. She said she’s “overjoyed” at what it has done for Randy Sandhoefner, 21, who has fetal alcohol syndrome.
“I don’t know how to say it any other way,” she said. It has improved his social skills, among other things.
Randy has a part-time job at Harold’s Koffee House in Florence. He brings his joke book to the job and is known among the morning coffee regulars as the cafe’s comedian.
Lori, meanwhile, is known for her creative displays in the Angel Guardians Hand Me Ups thrift store: “I try to make it like a little boutique.”
A volunteer also is teaching a few workshop individuals to quilt, including Marilyn Zevitz, 60, who said her parents both sewed. One recent morning, Zevitz carefully stitched small quilt squares together by hand. She prefers that to threading a machine.
Zevitz said she enjoys learning new things.
“If I do the same stuff, I get bored. I’m glad someone came in to teach this,” the Omaha native said.
This spring, AngelWorks plans to add gardening to its vocational offerings, and is seeking a volunteer expert to help. They hope to grow lettuce and herbs for the cafe.
That fits in nicely with efforts to encourage a more healthy lifestyle for students, some of whom live in group homes where they buy their own groceries. Angel Guardians urges students to take walks during breaks and provides healthy snacks.
Above all, Malone said, Angel Guardians hopes it’s dispelling common ideas about what special needs people can do and how successful they can be.
A handful of students, for example, have shown above-average skill at drawing. The man with the solid handshake and the purposeful walk — who now lives in a group home — is one of them. He recently drew a clever cartoon depicting two Pepsi cans in love, the company logo serving as their lips. Malone hopes to find a local artist who will work one-on-one with him and others.
“A lot of people have discovered hidden talents,” she said.