Eighteen months ago, Tom Pondel took a chance and hired Valley View School District 365U’s Secondary Transition Experience Program (STEP) program students Luz Maria Delgadillo and Carmello Bell to work part time for The Locker Room, his Bolingbrook-based T-shirt company.
Today he is elated that he made the move and he is urging other local companies to “jump right in” as well.
“It’s very important to us to have community partners like Tom,” said Blain Duesing, vocational coordinator for the STEP program which is designed to help teach life skills to young adults with special needs.
“I’ve seen what caring things these teachers do for these kids,” said Pondel, a lifelong Romeoville resident who attended Valley View Elementary School and West View (now Martinez) Middle School. “I just want to find a way to somehow give back to the community.”
When Duesing first approached Pondel almost two years ago about employing STEP students, the conversation focused on non-paying positions.
“But after a week or two, he told me he can’t not pay these kids,” Duesing recalled. “He treats them like family, talks to them like family. If there’s a holiday and they’re supposed to work, he still pays them. Plus he buys them lunch.”
“We are all family here. That’s just the way I want to run my store. That’s how I was raised,” Pondel said.
But being treated like family also means Luz Maria and Carmello are expected to work hard, just like Pondel’s daughter, Susan, and his parents, Tom and Marianne, who started the company more than 30 years ago.
“This is a hard job. When they come in, they work the entire time. They don’t get tired and ask if they can sit down,” Pondel said. “A lot is expected of them. They do their job. They’re great workers. They work just like anyone else.”
Their job includes folding and boxing T-shirts after they come out of the machine that affixes lettering to the shirts, a job Pondel says “is not easy because they have to keep all the orders straight and keep things organized.”
Luz Maria and Carmello also help keep the store clean.
“It’s so hard to get our kids paid positions like this. These positions at The Locker Room are probably the first two paid positions these kids have ever had in their life,” Duesing said. “Being able to work is such a boost for their self esteem.”
“We want to do whatever we can to help out,” Pondel said. “These kids just deserve a shot.”