PITTSBORO — Before the morning buses arrive at Margaret B. Pollard Middle School, Nathan Allred is already preparing. He’s arranging pizza ingredients for lunchtime, packing breakfast trays for students and making sure everything in the kitchen is in the right place.
Allred, 19, was hired by Chatham County Schools Nutrition Services in October, but his impact goes far beyond the food he gives to students. As a graduate of CCS’s Exceptional Children (EC) program, Allred said he hopes to pave the way for other EC students to become employed and help the school system.
Nathan, who’s autistic, said some tasks in the kitchen can be especially agitating or challenging, but he’s not letting those challenges stand in the way of putting a smile on the faces of students at breakfast and lunchtime in the cafeteria.
Nathan isn’t the only one in his family who works for CCS Nutritional Services. His younger sister Kaley, 18, and his mother Kristie, 45, are also employees of the district: Kaley is the food services manager at Chatham Grove Elementary School and Kristie is the manager at Pollard.
His family members said they were able to ease the transition into the workforce for Nathan because they know his boundaries. For example, Nathan technically works as a substitute for Nutritional Services so that he can have more flexible hours and work where his family members are. He spends most of his time at Pollard, but knowing his limits allows him to take time off when he needs it.
“It takes me some time to get used to things,” Nathan said. He currently works a set schedule from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, switching between Pollard and Chatham Grove.
But this isn’t Nathan’s first experience in food service. Prior to being hired by the district, he worked at Dry Dock Seafood in Siler City while he was still in school — it was there he learned the ropes of service. After he graduated last spring, though, he said he wanted to work with his mom.
Kristie Allred was previously a substitute worker for the nutrition department in CCS before she was hired as the nutritional coordinator at Pollard earlier this year. She said after talking to Director of Nutritional Services Jennifer Ozkurt, they decided having him work in the kitchen could be a benefit for everyone.
“We were talking to his doctors after he graduated and they asked, ‘What’s he going to do from here?’” Kristie said. “And we said, ‘I don’t really know.’ But then I talked with Jennifer and decided having him here could really boost his confidence.”
Kristie and Ozkurt then worked together to train Nathan for more than a month on all he would need to know to get ready to serve the students and staff of CCS in the cafeterias. At the end of the training, Jenette Horton, program facilitator for the CCS EC program, evaluated Nathan’s abilities. Horton has worked with Nathan since he first entered CCS in kindergarten, and happily wrote a recommendation letter for Nathan to begin working with Nutritional Services.
“I’ve known Nathan since he was a little guy,” Horton said. “I remember sitting on the floor with Nathan and trying to keep him safe because of his emotional outbursts. But he’s grown so much and it’s really great to see.”
Horton said Nathan has shown tremendous progress through the EC program, especially when it comes to expressing his feelings. She said he’s always been a kid that wanted to work as long as he has a job to do.
“I think it’s awesome that the county is really showing that yes, we’re teaching our kids job skills, and we are willing to employ them,” Horton said.
Soon enough, Nathan became the first CCS EC graduate to work for the district’s Nutritional Services team. His mom said seeing him work in the kitchen is proof he’s capable of entering the workforce.
“I tell my bosses all the time, there are things the EC kids can do that could be very helpful to us,” Kristie said. “And they were so short-staffed and like let’s try it.”
Kristie said she’s already seen Nathan’s employment open doors for other EC students. She said Chatham County Schools has since reached out to the EC program to discuss employing graduating students in the future.
His family said when Nathan was younger, she believed his autism would prevent him from entering the workforce.
“We knew he was smart but just very emotional,” Kristie said.
But through working together with doctors and educators, Nathan has progressed beyond his expectations. That’s part of the lesson his family hopes to pass on — with persistence EC students can do anything.
“All they [EC students] hear from the people around them is how much they can’t do,” Kaley said. “Nathan is showing people what they can do.”
Seeing Nathan thrive in his role has also sparked conversations within the district about employing more EC students in the district after they graduate, according to Horton.
“We all want to be heard, and we all want to have we all want to have some ownership of what we’re doing within our jobs,” Horton said “And Nathan is no different.”
Horton said providing EC students with a sense of ownership and responsibility can improve their mental health and help them in the future. She said having CCS employ former EC students is an “untapped population.”
Kaley said seeing her brother thrive in Nutritional Services led her to develop a new life skills program at her school, Chatham Grove, where EC students will come in weekly to wrap cookies, stock drinks and prepare them for work. She believes the program will improve their confidence and self-esteem.
Now, Nathan is a crucial part of the Nutritional Services team. His mother said his absence is felt by everyone.
“He’s definitely needed,” Kristie said. “When he’s not around at work it’s like, ‘Aw man, there’s nobody to lift these heavy bags for me.’”
Working alongside his mother and sister has also brought the three of them closer together, even if it does occasionally blur the family-colleague boundaries. Kaley said the two frequently joke with each other at work and know how to check in with one another to make sure they stay on task.
His mother said she sees that working in the kitchen is sometimes difficult for Nathan, but that’s why it’s great to have family by his side, to encourage him and help him work through it.
“I’m just super proud of both of them,” Kristie said of Nathan and Kaley. “You would not believe how many times I’ve heard, ‘Well, what’re they going to do?’ I’ve always known, they’re going to function, they’re going to live. So for me, it’s just amazing to see.”
Having family at work also means they know what Nathan is capable of. Kristie and Kaley said they often remind their coworkers that Nathan can do anything they ask of him, even if his methods for getting there are slightly different.
“I tell my coworkers all the time, ‘You don’t have to jump in and help,’” Kaley said. “I know what he can do. He’s always going to get there one way or another.”
Nathan works hard throughout the day because his coworkers push him, which is why after a long school day you can find him fast asleep in the back of his sister’s red Ford Mustang on the way home.
For now, Nathan said he enjoys his job with Nutritional Services and hopes to stay there as long as he can so he can keep living in Siler City with his mom and sister.
Correction: A previous version of this story indicated Kristie Allred was previously a substitute teacher at Chatham County Schools, she was a substitute for Nutritional Services.
The story also incorrectly indicated the EC program had been in contact with Chatham Hospital in Siler City; the program has been in contact with Chatham County Schools about employing future EC students, but not the hospital. The News + Record apologizes for these errors.
Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @b_rappaport.
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