Reliable employees are always hard to find, but at Jimmy’s Pizzeria in Troy, New York, there’s a group of young people who show up three days a week ready to work and excited to be there.
These special-needs youngsters are part of a program offered by the Lansingburgh School District Special Education Department in partnership with Tony Buchanan, owner of Jimmy’s Pizzeria. The goal is to offer the students real-world learning experience that could lead to paying jobs after graduation.
“It’s usually quiet, and they walk in the store and they’re, like, ‘GOOD MORNING!’” one employee recently told Albany TV station News10. “Then we’ll…put the music on, and they’re dancing while they’re working, so it’s fun.”
Buchanan’s own son was diagnosed with Fragile X syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by mild to moderate intellectual disability. So when Michelle Burkhart, a local special education teacher, dropped in to Jimmy’s for a slice, they started talking about how Buchanan could help Burkhart’s pupils learn some basic job skills.
Now a group of students, who are up to 21 in age, come in regularly to help the Jimmy’s Pizzeria staff any way they can. “They love it,” Burkhart told News10. “If it’s their Jimmy’s day, they’re excited. They like different aspects of the job. Sometimes we’re doing blue cheese. Sometimes we’re doing the dough. Sometimes we’re making sauce.”
The CBS6 news team, also in Albany, has spotlighted the program as well. “It holds a little special place in my heart because my son is a Fragile X carrier,” Buchanan told CBS6. “He’s in fourth grade. So, in a couple years, he’ll be one of these guys in here [working for the pizzeria]. He’s got a little leg up on them because his father is the owner, so he’s already learned a couple things. But it’ll be good to see him in here in a couple years doing the same thing these guys are doing.”
One of Burkhart’s students, Russell Holman, is 21. In the News10 report, he’s shown getting the pizza sauce ready for the pies and scooping condiments into dipping cups. “Sometimes we have a little trouble, but we got it,” he said.
For Burkhart, “seeing them be successful, seeing them happy” is what the program is all about. “Hopefully, they can perform a job like this when they graduate because some of them have excelled more than I expected them to here.”
Over time, plans call for some of the students to even take orders on the phone and interact with customers.
Buchanan is an Army veteran of the Iraq war and, by all accounts, a tireless servant leader in his community. In February, he read books to second-grade classes at Turnpike Elementary School. He has also raised funds for nonprofits like Sidewalk Warriors, supported the local Troy Uniformed Firefighters and held Christmas toy drives for the Rensselaer County Department for Youth.
In February 2020, Buchanan received the Friends of 112th Street Humanitarian Award for his “unselfish contributions” to the community.