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Published: Monday, August 22, 2005

Auntie Anne's army
The Alderwood mall pretzel maker is helping those with disabilities build their skills through the support organization PROVAIL.

Amy Rolph
Herald Writer

LYNNWOOD - Anna Hughes fits in well at Alderwood mall's newest Auntie Anne's Hand-Rolled Soft Pretzels location. Her co-workers describe her as having a great sense of humor, and she said she has fun at work.

When she jokes with location manager Ashley McClure, a shy smile creeps across her face.

"I'm going to stay here for a long time," Hughes said.

"Yeah, if I say so," teased McClure, tapping Hughes affectionately on the shoulder.

Hughes is one of seven employees with disabilities at the two Alderwood Auntie Anne's locations. She was referred to the franchise through PROVAIL, an organization that provides support for people with disabilities.

Hughes hands out samples and helps with pretzel preparation, but she said her favorite task is bagging - putting pretzels into small paper bags for customers.

Her attitude is top-notch, said McClure. "She comes in here ready to work."

Bret Stewart, owner of 10 Auntie Anne's locations including the two at Alderwood mall, has made it a priority to support people with disabilities. Twenty-two of his employees are disabled.

The sampler position was created with this goal in mind, he said. It is sometimes hard to find teenagers willing to pass out pieces of pretzel, but many people with disabilities enjoy the public interaction.

"I want to make sure the jobs we have are real jobs," he said. "People get raises and feedback they can take with them. This isn't the last job they'll have, and they're learning skills."

While Stewart is willing to be patient when it comes to making accommodations, he said he doesn't let standards slip. At one point, a hygiene issue arose when a customer complained about a sampler eating the samples while distributing them. The issue was cleared up after a little additional training.

"I don't like to have a situation where just because people have a disability, they don't have a standard," he said. "We don't want a person to just be a token disability. We want them to do a good job."

Darlene Etue is another Alderwood Auntie Anne's employee who came to Stewart through PROVAIL. Because she is confined to a wheelchair and has a speech disability, the sampler job is a good fit.

Etue said her co-workers are her favorite thing about working at Auntie Anne's.

"They're nice," she said.

Auntie Anne's staff receives training from PROVAIL on how to work with people with disabilities, Stewart said. He also employs people through Washington Vocational Services.

Cheryl Green, vice president of employment and community service for PROVAIL, said the organization's job coaches can provide information on behavioral problems or other issues that might come up.

Stewart, she said, is an ideal employer for the disabled.

"A lot of times, people with disabilities fool us all, because we have never given them a chance," she said. "Bret always gives them a chance to develop."

PROVAIL partners with more than 60 local companies to aid people with disabilities in their search for employment. Companies that hire people with physical or mental disabilities are often viewed as more caring companies by other employees and their customers, Green said.

And for employees with disabilities, holding down a part-time job has tremendous implications, said Green.

"The people with disabilities get so much more than a paycheck out of this," she said. "They get self-respect and dignity. ... They are the proudest people you will ever meet."


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