December 1, 2021

Ready, Willing and Able

Nancy Beckwith, Jeni Oechsle, mark 20 years

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Jeni Oechsle of Homer is a bakery assistant at Price Chopper. She is celebrating 20 years of work at the Cortlandville store.

Nancy Beckwith of Cortland and Jeni Oechsle of Homer are no slouches on the job.

They have put in 20 years of employment at Price Chopper in Cortlandville — Nancy as a bagging associate and Jeni as a bakery assistant, faithfully showing up for work, despite having a disability.

“I like interacting with the customers,” said Beckwith as she bagged groceries for a customer. “Asking how their day is going and talking about the weather.”

Oechsle, a bakery technician in the bread department, sets up rolls, sometimes cookies and other baked goods on trays and gets them ready for baking.

“I started back in ’01. I love it,” she said. “The whole thing. I like to talk to teammates. I always liked the supervisor.”

The women are part of JM Murray’s Employment Connections program, which pairs up people with disabilities with jobs in the community.

“We hire people with disabilities all the time,” said Roberta Caballero, a manager at Price Chopper. “There’s no difference between them and typical employees.”

Twenty years working at the store is phenomenal, she said. “We have some people who can’t make it two weeks, let alone 20 years.”

To succeed, a staff member needs good communication, customer service skills and to be able to get along with the team, Caballero said. And the two women do that.

“They communicate with customers on a daily basis, Nancy up front the whole 20 years, Jeni in the bakery the whole time,” Caballero said.

Paula Niederhofer is an employment specialist in Employment Connections of Cortlandville and works with Beckwith and Oechsle.

The Homer woman has been at her job 18 years.

“I help people with disabilities to find jobs and maintain them,” Niederhofer said. “I keep communication open with new employees. I come and visit and make sure everything is good with Nancy and Jeni. … I talk to their supervisor and make sure they are OK.”

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Nancy Beckwith of Cortland bags groceries for Devin McArthur Nov. 8 at Price Chopper in Cortlandville. She is is celebrating 20 years of employment at the store.

To work 20 years on the job is outstanding, Niederhofer said. Communicating with all the parties involved is essential.

Participants in the program could have a developmental or intellectual disability. Whatever the disability, JM Murray tries to find work for a person.

“Everyone is different,” Niederhofer said. “We have people that are supervisors. We have people all over Cortland. They are good at everything. Sometimes it’s not a good match, which is always a possibility for anybody. That could happen to me. I could not like a job.”

“Hiring people with disabilities is advantageous,” said Alex Mikowski, executive director at Access to Independence of Cortland County, an agency that supports and advocates for people with disabilities. “When folks with disabilities find a role that they enjoy, they tend to stay for a long time, much longer than others without disabilities on average.”

They can be more focused and perseverant, she said.

Access can help with job searches, writing resumes, peer mentoring and help students plan for the future and get training. It can help adults with disabilities apply for services so they can work.

Oechsle was laying out bread sticks on a tray while talking about her job. Niederhofer asked Oechsle, who has Down syndrome: “Do you like making money?”

“Of course I do!” said the part-time employee.

Oechsle also gets to package baked items and operate the bread slicer. “I am really good at it.”

She enjoys working with the customers. She may need help from coworkers to get the customers what they need.

“Oh, to be able to ask for help is a good thing,” Niederhofer said.

Oechsle’s mom, Janet, a retired teacher in the Homer School District, said anybody that has been employed for 20 years is remarkable.

“I know how dedicated Jeni is to Price Chopper,” Janet Oechsle said. “They have been very, very good to her. Her first boss who hired her, Mike Porter, he was a godsend. Jeni loved him. He was so patient.”

Her daughter is a very, very high functioning person with Down syndrome, who graduated from Homer High School with an individualized education program diploma and attended a School to Work Program for two years. She then interviewed for the Price Chopper job.

“Mike Porter said, ‘I want her for my team at the bakery,’” Janet Oechsle said.

She’s seen her daughter, a Syracuse University basketball and football fan, as well as a NASCAR and WWE wrestling aficionado, blossom at the bakery. When she needed to up her production level, she went to a clock to help her move along quicker, her mom said.

“She is the queen of rolls,” Janet Oechsle said. And she’s even taught others to do her job.

“You need to be good at customer service,” Beckwith said. “I usually work three days a week, bagging or doing some other thing. Putting things away, restocking, keeping tables clean.”

Of marking 20 years on the job:

“It’s good,” said Beckwith, a 1992 Cortland High graduate. “I can work with an intellectual disability.”

Beckwith said she had to learn how to talk to her supervisor. That was an issue Niederhofer worked on with Beckwith through the years.

“Being confident,” Beckwith said, “Talking with him, and talking to co-workers.”

Beckwith enjoys visiting friends and family, and doing activities with her friends, she said.

Price Chopper has been employing people with disabilities since it opened in Cortlandville, Niederhofer said. And there are many employers in the area that employ disabilities, she said. Ames Linen of Cortland is another.

Mikowski applauded the women for their 20 years of service.

“You deserve a medal,” she said. “Or at least a vacation.”