The sizzle of short ribs grilling on the stovetop drowns out the murmurs of a Kolohe Kai album playing softly in the background. While bakers drizzle frosting on freshly baked lilikoi scones and line cooks race around the café, Lanakila Kitchen staff chuckle amongst each other as they work like a well-oiled machine passing plates down the line. Yet somehow, even amongst all this commotion, Thomas—one of the newest members on the team and the unofficial Lanakila Kitchen cheerleader—is heard cheerfully proclaiming, “We can do it guys! Let’s keep up the good work. Everything is possible!”

 After graduating from Kaiser High School last year, Thomas was determined to start earning his own living as he transitioned into his newfound adulthood. However, embarking on a job hunt is certainly no easy task—especially for young people with disabilities who often face an added challenge. Nevertheless, with his strong sense of optimism, Thomas began to explore numerous employment opportunities in all kinds of industries. Unfortunately, his initial efforts were to no avail.

Reflecting on his early job search process he shares, “It was really challenging finding a job that worked for me. I tried out a lot of different roles but encountered some obstacles along the way. Some jobs were either too physically demanding, simply uninteresting, or worse – unwelcoming. Not everyone knows how to work with different types of people like me.” Although the tides are turning, many workplaces still fall short of being an inclusive space for people with disabilities. Thomas recounts a particular incident, “In the past, I had some coworkers who weren’t so nice. Some would tease me for taking longer to complete a task or needing help and that didn’t feel very good.” For Thomas, finding employment was about much more than just collecting a paycheck. It was about finding a role that not only fits his strengths and interests, but also provides a welcoming space that is supportive and proud of what he has to offer just as he is.

While struggling to home in on his passions, Thomas decided to join the Lanakila Pacific’s Employment Services, a program that empowers individuals with disabilities with resources and hands-on training to fine tune their vocational skills. Coupled with an individualized approach, Employment Services helps participants recognize their strengths, identify their passions, and even place them with fitting and meaningful employment opportunities. As a participant, Thomas soaked in all the knowledge he could and discovered his passions finally landing him his dream role working as a Food Service Worker in Lanakila Kitchen.

Now, as a valued member of the kitchen team, Thomas gets to learn all the ins and outs of the food industry. As a huge foodie himself (fun fact: one of Thomas’ favorite hobbies is making TikToks about the food he eats), learning how to mix scones, provide customer service, and assemble meals has been a natural fit for him. But his favorite part of his new job is encouraging his team and building community. Smiling from ear to ear, Thomas claims, “I love working on a team that treats each other with respect. I love getting to be the cheerleader that brings positivity and fun to work each day. I can tell my supervisors and friends here care about me a lot and that makes working the most enjoyable experience I’ve ever had!”