McKeesport restaurateurs give opportunities to special needs students
A McKeesport family's mission to provide a safe working environment for their autistic son has evolved into a vocational outreach for special needs adults and children.
Joe and Brenda Osinski acquired Benito's Eating and Drinking Place at 2714 Walnut St. from John and Jane Marino in September, and renamed it Puzzlers Restaurant & Lounge.
It opened on Nov. 2, their son Joey's 17th birthday. That was no coincidence.
“The puzzle piece is a national symbol for autism,” Joe Osinski said. “Using that and the four colors most often associated with autism in our logo, it was very simple to brand ourselves as Puzzlers and connect ourselves to autism awareness.”
Joey, who was diagnosed at age 5, is a junior at Serra Catholic High School. He is enrolled there through the St. Anthony School Programs.
It is a Catholic-based educational initiative that helps children and young adults with autism, Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities experience life to the fullest — academically, socially, vocationally and spiritually.
“All parents are very protective of their kids, and as the parents of a special needs child, we are overly protective,” Osinski said. “Parents want their children to be productive members of society, which includes working and being part of the community. Instead of having Joey go out and work for somebody, where I have to worry about getting a phone call from his employer saying that Joey has been hurt or taken advantage of in some way, I circumvented that by going into the restaurant business. He works for me, surrounded by my family, my friends and customers who know him.”
Joey already is a fixture at Puzzlers, sharing at least one meal there each day with his 11-year-old sister Anna, but he won't start working there until after the New Year. His classmates, however, have been learning the ropes since the Osinski family's takeover.
Serra junior Jasmine Small and seniors Victoria D'Andrea and Matthew Baccile work in the kitchen and dining room each Wednesday from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. through a vocational extension of the St. Anthony program. They are accompanied by at least one classroom teacher.
Matthew said he feels most productive in the kitchen scrubbing potatoes and making fresh-cut fries, while Victoria said she prefers interacting with customers.
“I like talking to people a lot and making new friends,” she said. “They're funny and nice.”
St. Anthony's assistant program director and behavioral services director Lisa Hendrickson said the vocational education sets St. Anthony apart from other academic and life skills programs.
The school has programs to guide students through elementary, secondary and collegiate studies. By the end of high school, Hendrickson said, St. Anthony students are leaps ahead of special needs students at the college level.
“It proves to us that we are on the right track,” she said. “We truly believe that preparing our students vocationally will be useful when they graduate.”
Students are introduced to the workforce as high school freshmen, and their weekly work hours increase when they become upperclassmen. As they progress, they get experience in food service, clerical and maintenance work.
Hendrickson commended the Osinskis for recognizing a need and helping to find a solution.
“They are amazing,” she said. “Instead of waiting for an opportunity, they went out and created one — not just for their son, but for our whole program. Our vocational program is thriving with this new opportunity.”
Osinski said Puzzlers is a natural progression from the Joey-O Foundation for Autism Awareness, which the family and their friends established in 2012 to raise funds for St. Anthony, K-9s for Kids and other special-needs support groups.
“This whole thing was an easy leap to make, even though I have no previous experience in the restaurant business,” Osinski, a McKeesport police detective, said. “Being in contact with other families in the St. Anthony programs, it was easy to find other families who wanted something for their teens and young adults to do. These kids need to be out, doing things and socializing.”
St. Anthony students Maria Mrvos, a Serra senior, and Dylan Breletic, a Duquesne University freshman, are on staff at Puzzlers, as is West Mifflin Area junior Brendon Beardmore, who is on the autism spectrum.
Brendon, a friend of the Osinski family, said he takes pride in his work.
“I was really looking for a job,” he said. “I just wanted to get out of the house. I looked forward to doing something fun and making money.”
Osinski said that is precisely the point of Puzzlers.
“It has become very obvious that there are definite needs out there for places where special needs kids and young adults can work,” Osinski said. “They need more places to go to learn skills that they can use as they transition into the rest of their lives.”
Hendrickson said such skills are not the tasks students complete while on the clock.
“It's not about learning how to work in a kitchen or how to be a hostess,” she said. “We are teaching students all of the related skills that apply to all jobs and to everyday life. It's work ethic, time management and problem solving.”
Having special needs teens on staff allows other Puzzlers employees to grow, Hendrickson said.
“It breaks down barriers,” she said. “All of our vocational sites see how much our kids try and how cool this opportunity really is. The regular employees learn, too. They're getting a lesson in patience and they're learning to be teachers.”
Brittany Haberjak, a morning cook at Puzzlers, said working with special needs kids is different, but rewarding.
“All of the kids who work here are sweethearts,” she said. “Everyone is different. They enjoy doing different tasks, and they have different skills.”
“They're always very pleasant,” Osinksi said. “These kids enjoy coming to work and doing what we ask of them.”
Osinski encouraged other business owners to learn more about St. Anthony School Programs and how their jobsites could serve as learning environments. Information is available online at www.stanthonyschoolprograms.com or by calling 724-940-9020.
Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1956, or firstname.lastname@example.org.