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More than just a job

Randolph Community College Adult Basic Life Skills Education (ABLE) student Lindsey Pizzola works on folding paper towels for the upcoming painting classes at The Preppy Possum.
Randolph Community College Adult Basic Life Skills Education (ABLE) student Lindsey Pizzola works on folding paper towels for the upcoming painting classes at The Preppy Possum.

RCC student blossoms at The Preppy Possum

Lindsey Pizzola unfurls a roll of paper towels on a flower-printed green tablecloth. She tears several sheets as the roll nears the end of the table. Once she has a sizeable stack, she folds each towel into a thick rectangle. She arranges them one on top of the other. Lindsey works quickly, carefully, filling cardboard boxes with folded towels. Rolling, stacking, folding, filling.

“You don’t have to go so fast,” her boss and owner of The Preppy Possum, Nikki-Cherry Crowfoot, tells her, peering around a canvas.

But Lindsey keeps up the pace. She’s determined. She has a job to do.

Pizzola is enrolled in Randolph Community College’s Adult Basic Life Skills Education (ABLE) program, which helps adults with developmental disabilities. Students take academic-based classes that focus on helping them become as independent as possible. That extends into life outside of RCC as many of the College’s ABLE students also have jobs. For Pizzola, it’s folding paper towels and unwrapping canvases every Tuesday at The Preppy Possum, a paint-and-sip studio in Asheboro.

RCC Director of College and Career Readiness Jordan Williamson said finding these opportunities for the ABLE students is an important step in ending the stigma that individuals with disabilities can’t work or go to college. Pizzola is a huge part of that step. Not only does she have a job, but she also is well on her way to being more independent — something a lot of people thought she could never do.

Through the ABLE Program and her job at The Preppy Possum, Pizzola is not only thriving and gaining confidence, but also helping to end the stigma that people with special needs can’t work or go to college.
“I wanted to shine a light on the partnership [among] RCC’s ABLE program, vocational rehab, and the community organizations and employers that are willing to hire our students — whether they volunteer or they find employment,” she said. “In partnering with these agencies that specialize in serving these populations, we can give them the support that they need to help them transition. These partnerships are critical in our community.”

When Pizzola was a student at Southwestern Randolph High School, she not only took a class from Crowfoot, but also met Mary Eubanks, a Vocational Rehabilitation Services counselor for Randolph County, who saw Pizzola’s potential immediately.

“Every once in a while, you’ll find this kid that — there’s a spark,” Eubanks said. “There’s something about Lindsey. She is so motivated. It just showed in her eyes that she wanted to work.”

That drive to work led Pizzola to enroll in RCC’s ABLE program and to open The Preppy Possum door. Eubanks knows all too well that a person with special needs requires not only an education, but also a job.

“I always make sure to tell the students, ‘We’ll find a job that matches what you’re capable of doing,’ ” she said. “We go and talk to that employer. Everybody deserves a chance. I want to make sure they know they have a space because once you feel like there’s no purpose, you give up.”

Hiring Pizzola was an easy decision for Crowfoot, whose first friend growing up had special needs and who volunteered with the special needs class at her high school.

“Lindsey is really interested in fashion and art,” Crowfoot said. “She wanted to work here.”

“Lindsay is the type of person who brings joy,” Eubanks said. “When Lindsey came through [The Preppy Possum] door, they fell in love.

After Lindsey visited The Preppy Possum a few times in 2017, she started working every Tuesday.

“Those are things that take a lot of time that she can help us with,” Crowfoot said, “and pre-COVID we’d have big groups and it was a huge help to have all of that done.

“Lindsey will tell me if she likes a painting. If I’m working on something, she’ll say, ‘Oh, I like that!’ and then sometimes she doesn’t say anything.’ ”

During the holidays, Pizzola was particularly fond of the Olaf and Cindy Lou Who paintings.

Pizzola was recently a Student Ambassador at the College’s Transition Fair on March 17.
While Pizzola folded and unwrapped, she and Crowfoot would talk about life and love — or sneak in a movie like “Dumplin’.”

“We work better together; we have a connection,” Crowfoot said. “We’re the work team here.”

When the pandemic hit, it was not only tough on the business, but also on its employee. Pizzola stopped by more than once to see when she could start working again — and bring the Crowfoot’s baby daughter, Ruby, a present. After a year-and-a-half, the door opened again, and Pizzola and Crowfoot were back into their routine, painting, folding, watching their shows, and talking about Pizzola’s boyfriend at school. (“Is he going to break your heart?” Crowfoot jibes.)

During a 2018 ceremony for National Disability Employment Awareness Month at Asheboro’s Bicentennial Park, Mayor David Smith presented The Preppy Possum with the Jim and Audrey Harriman Employer of the Year Award for their work with Pizzola.

“There are tons of businesses that could use help — whether it’s a quick job like needing things paper-clipped or packaged, or needing more permanent help,” Crowfoot said. “It’s good to draw awareness because a lot of people don’t realize they can hire someone with special needs. It takes some patience, but a lot of people could.”

Having a job transformed Pizzola, who was extremely introverted when she first set foot on the RCC campus.

“She wouldn’t talk,” Lead Instructor for College and Career Readiness Emma Lambirth said. “Then, she got The Preppy Possum job. She even asked me about a job fair — that’s the most she’s ever said to me. She’s looking into group homes. She has so much more confidence and self-esteem.”

Currently, 20 ABLE students have jobs with more volunteering locally.

“A lot of these students and their parents don’t know where to go,” Lambirth said. “We’re trying to be a more involved shop to meet their needs and make sure they know their options. They’ve been told for so long that they can’t do this. Now they’re out there in the community and they’re doing their part.”

Pizzola has not only thrived at The Preppy Possum, but also in the classroom, taking digital literacy classes for a certificate that may start with turning on a computer, but keep going with creating a resumé and learning PowerPoint.

When asked what her favorite subject is, Pizzola didn’t hesitate.

“Math,” she said. “I can do it without using a calculator.”

“Lindsey’s an excellent student,” Instructor Donna Beverly added. “She’s very focused.”

On St. Patrick’s Day, Pizzola and classmate Sarah Rutledge were RCC’s ABLE Student Ambassadors as the College hosted a Transition Fair for local students with disabilities, Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), or considered for an Occupational Course of Study (OCS) or in Exceptional Children (EC) while enrolled in high school.

“She is more confident; she will initiate conversation,” Williamson said. “Right now, she is doing digital literacy, and she’s encouraging her classmates to do the things she’s doing. It only takes one student to do that and open it up to other students. Lindsey has become a leader.”
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