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Hillside Pizza recognized as Inclusive Employer of the Year

BERNARDSTON — As part of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, Hillside Pizza was recognized for its efforts to provide employment opportunities and a culture of inclusion for people with disabilities.

The human services agency VIABILITY named Hillside Pizza an “Inclusive Employer of the Year.” Six other local organizations and businesses will be recognized throughout the month.

Owners Craig and Amy White, alongside employee Patrick Jones, were presented the award Tuesday at the restaurant’s Bernardston location at 77 Church St. VIABILITY President and CEO Colleen Holmes was in attendance, along with Director Julie Lococo and Frank Fitzgerald, chair of VIABILITY ’s board of directors.

The organization has a local office at 60 Wells St. in Greenfield, and a main headquarters in Springfield. Holmes said VIABILITY “at its core, is about inclusion, equity and access.” With a network of more than 600 employer partners, VIABILITY matches local workforce demands by connecting employers with individuals with autism, individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, and others with disabilities or disadvantages.

Zack DeLuca
The Greenfield Recorder
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  • VIABILITY board of directors Chair Frank Fitzgerald and President and CEO Colleen Holmes flank Hillside Pizza owners Craig and Amy White and their employee Patrick Jones on Tuesday. VIABILITY named Hillside Pizza “Inclusive Employer of the Year” for its work with employees with disabilities. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Amy White said “any and every business” would benefit from working with folks of different abilities, and she encouraged others to reach out to VIABILITY.

“Anybody who works with VIABILITY should be prepared to have their lives explode in wonderful ways,” she said.

She noted that many small businesses are experiencing staffing shortages, and connecting with VIABILITY could not only fill a void, but would provide a life-changing opportunity for the employee.

“Our hope is always to raise awareness and inspire other small businesses to consider how they can bring someone of different abilities into their work family,” Amy White said.

Between bites of pizza, the Whites shared the story of how they and Jones first became a “pizza family,” and then a real family. Craig White said he and his wife were introduced to VIABILITY when a case worker, Natalie Spatcher, came into the restaurant to have Hillside Organic Catering cater her wedding five years ago.

“When she came, we had our kids from The I.N.S.P.I.R.E. School working,” Craig White recalled.

Fourteen years ago, the Whites founded The I.N.S.P.I.R.E. School for Autism, a Brattleboro, Vt. school for students with autism between the ages of 7 and 22 from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont. The school now has about 24 students. Before the pandemic began, Hillside Pizza was run completely by students of the school each Tuesday. The Whites said these days were “always packed” with people coming out to support them.

“(Spatcher) told us of a client of hers,” Amy White said. “It was the dream of this client to work in a pizza restaurant, and when do you ever have a chance to make someone’s dream come true? That’s how we met an incredible young man, Patrick Jones, and he has been changing our lives and touching our hearts ever since!”

Jones, who has autism, has worked at Hillside Pizza for five years. When interviewing for the job, Craig White recalled, he was “very professional” and started out wanting just small responsibilities.

“Folding boxes was all I wanted to do — nothing else,” Jones said.

Craig White hired him to start the next day, and he quickly got settled folding boxes and greeting customers with a beaming smile.

In January 2020, Jones’ father died. In the immediate wake of this tragedy, the Whites invited him to live with them. During this time Jones went to work with Craig White every day, and he became interested in expanding his responsibilities.

“Now he had to learn, and he wanted to learn,” Craig White said. “He’s the master of making dough, which is an art.”

“I make pizzas, too. I make awesome pizza,” Jones added.

Jones moved out of the Whites’ residence and into shared housing through ServiceNet in March 2020. He has lived in an apartment in Greenfield with a roommate for more than a year now.

Craig White also shared a story of one student, Alex, who was 19 years old while working these Tuesday lunches and “had never wanted to learn how to read.”

“You couldn’t teach him because he didn’t want to learn,” Craig White said. “He just wouldn’t do it.”

While working at Hillside Pizza, Alex would be on the prep line and quickly remembered orders voiced to him. One day, Alex “realized he wanted to be able to read the slips like everybody else,” Craig White said. Inspired by his work experience, Alex learned to read before he turned 22.

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A Lead Sponsor for VIABILITY’s Inclusion & Access initiatives.