Just inside Peirce Dining Hall’s servery, on top of the wooden shelves stocked with granola to the left of the doorway, rest four awards. Two recent ones read “Employer of the Year” and “Certificate of Appreciation.”
AVI Foodsystems received the plaques in honor of their commitment to employing people with a variety of disabilities in partnership with New Hope, a nonprofit based in Knox County that aims to assist these individuals with a variety of services.
“Everyone has a right to earn a paycheck, regardless of what your skill capacity is,” Chris topher Wisbey, resident director of AVI, said in an interview with the Collegian.
Wisbey said he has increased the company’s involvement with New Hope since his arrival in January 2017. He has hired a greater number of people whom New Hope recommends for jobs like busing tables and working dish return.
“Chris and his team have really been especially good,” Terri Pribonic, the New Hope community employment services manager, said. “They’ve always been very good to us … to give our people a chance.” Around six of nearly 100 people currently employed by AVI at Peirce were connected through New Hope. Wisbey also hires employees with disabilities from smaller-scale service providers.
AVI employees from New Hope receive job coaching beyond the typical training process. Allegra Sherman, one of New Hope’s community service specialists, assists potential hirees with the application process and continues to serve as a liason between Wisbey and the employees once they begin work. When someone new trains for a job at AVI, she learns it along with them.
“I know about every corner of this place,” she said.
Wisbey works with New Hope in other ways. New Hope operates what they call the Summer Youth Work Experience Program in addition to finding employment for adults with disabilities. The program runs for a total of 100 hours over the course of five weeks and serves to assist teenagers with disabilities ages 14 to 21 with the transition from high school to the working world.
“I started in the middle of the summer when I was 16, learned how to do the job, and I’ve been with them for two years,” Lakota Muston, who works with AVI in the dish return, said. Wisbey hired Muston along with another high school graduate upon their completion of the summer program, and he said that she is one of his best employees. She had the opportunity to attend New Hope’s annual breakfast in October along with Wisbey and another AVI employee, where she spoke about her work experience.
“It’s been fun working here, and hard work too,” she said. She said she learned a lot from Sherman, who comes in at least once a month on Thursdays and Fridays to work through any challenges Chris may be facing with new employees.
“If it’s maybe not a good day, but I see a girl in here, and I know that she wants to make this place her career … just to know that with the union, she’s going to be making more and more money here, that’s why I do it,” Sherman said.
Pribonic, who organized the summer program after she joined New Hope full time in 2008, remarked that “People are giving back to the community, they’re finding purpose, they’re finding self-worth.”
Wisbey is happy with the the quality of AVI’s relationship with New Hope. “I think our team has adjusted to the fact that that’s the way it’s going to be, especially when I’m here,” he said. “It’s not going to change because we are part of the community.”