Within walking distance of my home are a number of grocery and convenience stores—on the corner of Weatherly and Bailey Cove another one popped up this year. Any turn in just about any direction proves there is no shortage of opportunity when it comes to finding foodstuffs to fill our already over-filled cupboards. I could shop anywhere, but I go to Publix.
More Than Groceries
From the butcher who cheerfully cuts my meat into any size I want, to the pharmacy technician who recognizes my face and quickly produces my prescription, to the customer service department that orders any item I am unable to find on their fully stocked shelves, my Publix feels like a community store—even though it’s not.
But that’s not why I shop there. I go to Publix because the special education teacher in me loves that they employ people some might think are not hirable.
People like Danny.
Those of you who live on my side of town are likely reading these words and nodding your heads in agreement. You know exactly who I mean.
Danny Nelson, 49, bags my groceries with care and precision, making sure the bags aren’t so full the plastic tears. Sometimes he reminds me that next time I should remember to bring in those reusable grocery bags he knows are in the back of my car. We always laugh at my forgetfulness. As he pushes my cart outside, sometimes I ask him about his ice-skating lessons with Miss Ginger and whether he’s ready to compete in the Olympics again. He loads my car quickly, and I drive away with a smile on my face.
He was a tiny thing—weighing just under six pounds—when he was born to Fritz and Ginger Nelson in 1967. He was their third child, and the delivery had been relatively easy compared to the first two. His perfectly round head and beautiful face gave them no indication their doctor would soon utter words that Ginger says “were a war cry tearing through the peace of my dreams.” The doctor came into her hospital room after he had carefully examined the baby to tell her that her new son had all the classic signs of Down syndrome.
Questions whirled through Ginger’s mind as she processed the meaning of it. A nurse came into her room and placed the baby in her arms. “Slowly, I looked down at his sweet and angelic face,” Ginger remembers. “A familiar happiness flooded all the aching sores of my mind. This is one wonderful baby, I thought. Disabled? Maybe. But, oh, how precious he is.” She began to sing the words to an old Irish song, “Danny Boy,” and with those notes her son had his name.
How Far He Can Go
Ginger and Fritz worked hard to give Danny a childhood that would allow him to reach his full potential. Ginger outlined those efforts in her book, “They’ll Remember Our Son.” He went to public school, and Ginger became a special education substitute so she could learn everything she could to work with Danny at home. He rode his bike around his neighborhood, joined a bowling league and participated in gymnastics meets.
In 1979, he was selected to accompany a group of athletes to the White House where he saw First Lady Rosalyn Carter and had his picture taken with Eunice Shriver and Pelé. And in 1987 he competed in the Summer International Special Olympics where he won medals and spent several minutes doing back flips with Bart Connor. Now, at the age of 49, he competes in ice-skating.
In the Workforce
It’s hard to imagine a business might not give the Dannys of our town a chance to prove they can contribute. But it happens. Ginger shares a story that tugs at my heart: “Vocational Rehabilitation found a job for Danny bagging groceries at a new supermarket that was opening up. We bought him the shoes and the slacks. He was ready.”
But when Ginger brought Danny to the store for his first day, the manager told her there had been a mistake. He said there was no work for Danny after all. “We learned… the other employees did not want to work with a handicapped person, and the manager capitulated,” Ginger explains. It was a direct violation of the Disabilities Act, but Ginger didn’t push it.
As his mother retells the story, Danny’s face momentarily reflects the disappointment he felt back then, but within minutes he brightens up and poses for a picture with some of his athletic medals.
It’s kind of ironic that Danny has been bagging groceries at Publix for years now. I ask him how he feels about working there. His face immediately brightens, and he flashes that familiar smile. “People smile a lot at me,” he answers. “I like that. The managers are very nice to me. I love everyone I work with.”
Danny’s father Fritz Nelson explains, “It’s a social thing for him. It’s not necessarily work. You talk about people being happy with their job—on a scale of 1 to 10, he’s a 10. When we left today, he HAD to give one of the managers a hug—Bonnie.”
Adds Ginger, “I think he’s just happy to be with the public he loves, being around people and serving them. He’s such a friendly personality and very outgoing. Of course, he also enjoys getting a paycheck!”
One time I came into Publix for a few things and saw Danny ringing up groceries behind the cash register, and one of the managers was bagging groceries for him. Turns out the assistant manager had decided to let Danny have some additional training while it was a little slow.
And that’s why I go to Publix.