Papa Gino’s: A positive chain of events in Brookline Village?

Brookline TAB, February 6, 2010

When I learned recently that Papa Gino’s Pronto may come to Brookline Village, I’m pretty sure my response was not like any of my neighbors’. “Hooray!” I thought. “A job for Natty!”

Nat is my 20-year-old autistic son, born and bred in Brookline. But Nat is not college-bound like so many of his age. So Nat, who at 22 will no longer be eligible for public school support, needs to have a job — pronto.

Like my neighbors, I, too, love a neighborhood that looks and feels like a neighborhood. I live in Pill Hill because of its charm and beauty. I love to walk into Brookline Village, with its warm brick shops, elegant signs and charming boutiques. I love the idea that there are interesting restaurants like Pomodoro and KooKoo CafĂ© within walking distance. Preserving Brookline Village’s quirky and classy ambiance should be a priority for this town.

And yet, I also have learned a thing or two about priorities, as the mother of a severely disabled kiddo. I now know that sometimes changes — even outwardly unattractive changes — have some good in them.

During Nat’s life, I have had to put certain dreams and wishes aside, such as spending a lovely time in the park, chatting with all the parents and caregivers while our children play together on the climbing structures. My playground days with Nat consisted of keeping him from throwing sand to watch the flickering shower of fine dust rain down on the other children’s heads. During Nat’s elementary school years, I had to give up my dream of sending him to the beautiful elementary school down the street, because there were no programs for him there. In fact, we had to change his school programs five different times to keep up with his unpredictable and changing needs — and only one of those programs was run by Brookline Public Schools.

Yet I would not characterize Nat’s growing up as a tragedy. His struggles and challenges are monumental. His achievements appear inconsequential, especially if you compare him to the typical Brookline High School students, some 90 percent of whom go on to college. But comparing children is always a nasty business, so I stay away from that. I compare Nat to himself, and I take stock in how he has evolved, in what he has overcome.

In the last few years, Nat has become pretty much non-aggressive. This was a child who, at 10, was expelled for six weeks from an out-of-district school program for aggression. So this is a triumph. It means he, who could barely answer a “yes” or “no” question at 5, has learned to express himself so that others understand him and he is no longer frustrated with a world that is cacophony to his sensitive ears and his atypical neurology.

The most miraculous thing about Nat, however, is that he has learned to work. Nat currently holds four part-time jobs. Two are at his school, delivering messages all over the building, and gathering and delivering snacks to classrooms. The other two are with a Papa Gino’s near his school on the South Shore.

At Papa Gino’s, Nat has a very clued-in supervisor who is grateful to have a worker like Nat. He never requests a break. He probably wouldn’t care if he didn’t get paid, as long as he could have his orange soda and his cheeseless pizza at the end of his shift. Nat’s highly productive box-making at Papa Gino’s made him a valued employee there, so much so that another nearby Papa Gino’s offered him a job delivering coupons to homes. Recently, the school has begun to phase out his job coach. In a nutshell, Nat loves to work at Papa Gino’s. And Papa Gino’s loves Nat. And what’s more, when Nat ages out of the school, we hope his supervisor at Papa Gino’s will write him a recommendation to help him get a job at another Papa Gino’s franchise, near where he will live.

The one dream I have not given up on is to have Nat live near Brookline as an adult, so that I can see him often, and so that he can go on his favorite walks: to J.P. Licks, the Booksmith or the Village CVS. But imagine if he could also walk to work. Even if he only works a few hours a day, he will have the dignity we all get from our jobs, and a sense of purpose.

So, as unattractive as it may be to have yet another chain store in town, I have learned that maybe I don’t have to see it as a drawback, but instead see it as an opportunity for a guy like Nat.