News & Information > News Releases

October 14, 2021

Melanie Mowry Etters
Communication Director

Florida Exceptional Employers Honored

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD), Blind Services, and Vocational Rehabilitation recognized 10 businesses today with an Exceptional Employer Award. These companies from across the state were recognized for hiring and retaining people with disabilities as part of their workforce. The 16th annual celebration was held virtually as part of recognizing October as Disability Employment Awareness Month.

The Exceptional Employer Awards are presented to companies that have a strong commitment to hiring people with unique abilities. RESPECT of Florida, which employs people with disabilities, sponsored the plaques that were presented to the winners.

The 10 award-winning businesses are:

  • Advance Auto Parts
  • Bob Sierra North Tampa YMCA
  • Dick’s Sporting Goods
  • Flagler College of St. Augustine and Aramark at Flagler College
  • Glory Days Grill
  • Golden Corral of Jacksonville
  • Helping Hands for Homemaking and Companionship, LLC
  • Sheraton Panama City Beach Golf and Spa Resort
  • Sonic Drive-In of Yulee
  • The Fresh Market of Aventura

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said, “I thank these businesses for leading the way on this important initiative and congratulate all of the Exceptional Employer Award winners who are being honored today. My administration is determined to make Florida a place where people with disabilities have the opportunity to enter the workforce and thrive. I am excited to see how these businesses share our vision and improve both the lives of the individuals with disabilities whom they hire and, at the same time, the success of their organizations.”

“I am inspired by these Exceptional Employer Award winners. These businesses reaffirm our commitment to making Florida a great environment for unique individuals to thrive independently while fulfilling their utmost potential. I look forward to working with these companies who are improving both the lives of those individuals and the businesses who hire them,” said Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nuñez.

APD Director Barbara Palmer said, “We are delighted to honor these deserving companies for their ongoing commitment to employing people with disabilities in their workforces. Hiring someone with unique abilities is a good business decision. These businesses know firsthand that these individuals with special abilities are the most reliable employees within their organizations.”

“Disability Employment Awareness Month is a wonderful opportunity to spotlight employers who recognize the many benefits of hiring workers with unique abilities. I congratulate the 10 companies that are being honored today for their commitment to employing individuals with disabilities. The Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) and the Division of Blind Services within the Department of Education are doing great work supporting individuals and their employers so together they are able to achieve success,” said Department of Education Secretary Richard Corcoran.

“Under Governor DeSantis’ leadership, we strive to provide individuals with disabilities opportunities to be successful and prosper here in Florida, including at the Department of Economic Opportunity through the Unique Abilities Partner Program,” said Secretary Dane Eagle of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. “I am excited to join Governor DeSantis, the 181 businesses throughout the state who participate in the Unique Abilities Partner Program, and all of Florida in celebrating and recognizing October as Disability Employment Awareness Month.”

“The CareerSource Florida network prioritizes inclusive economic recovery by working to ensure all Floridians are able to reach their potential with rewarding jobs and career paths,” said CareerSource Florida President and CEO Michelle Dennard. “National Disability Employment Awareness Month provides a great reminder to identify more opportunities to hire Floridians with disabilities and focus on inclusion as part of a long-term business growth plan. We commend this year’s Exceptional Employers for leading by example!”

Division of Blind Services Director Robert Doyle said, “The Florida Division of Blind Services is excited to celebrate National Disability Employment Awareness Month by joining APD and VR in recognizing the exceptional employers that make Florida communities and our workforce that much greater!”

Family Care Council Chair Dina Justice said, “As parents and self-advocates, Family Care Council Florida is pleased that businesses are recognizing the talents and contributions of those within our population. We feel it is vital that those individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities be accepted and are able to fulfill their goals by working within their communities.”

“Congratulations to the 2021 Florida Exceptional Employer winners. We applaud these companies for their efforts to connect workers with disabilities to employment opportunities, and their understanding of the important contributions this dedicated talent pool makes to Florida’s workforce,” said The Able Trust CEO and President Allison Chase.

“The Florida Association of Rehabilitation Facilities (Florida ARF) and RESPECT of Florida celebrate the efforts of so many businesses who are empowering Floridians with disabilities through employment opportunities. We congratulate and thank the 2021 Florida Exceptional Employer winners for making a meaningful difference in the lives of so many individuals,” said Florida ARF President & Chief Executive Officer Tyler Sununu.

“It’s great to see businesses recognizing the value of people with disabilities and how these individuals enhance their companies. We celebrate the skills and talents of workers with disabilities and how they are leading the way in ensuring that other people with disabilities have the opportunity to live up to their potential. The Arc of Florida stands with these business leaders in our communities,” said The Arc of Florida President and CEO Alan Abramowitz.

“People who have disabilities are an underrepresented talent pool within Florida's workforce. The Florida Alliance for Assistive Services and Technology is thrilled to celebrate with the Agency for Persons with Disabilities as they recognize exceptional employers for their efforts to engage a more diverse labor force,” said FAAST, Inc., Executive Director Whitney Doyle.

Individuals highlighted during the celebration include North Tampa YMCA employee Robyn Stawski, Five Guys Burgers and Fries employee Robert Stokes, and Radiology Associates of Tallahassee employee Reagan Brown, who all shared what having a job means to them.

Here is information on the 10 winning companies:

Advance Auto Parts
This large company has made an incredible effort to be inclusive by hiring 76 individuals with disabilities in Florida and 367 throughout the country. This 91-year-old company has a history of hiring many people with different abilities over the last several decades. These workers are employed in distribution centers such as the Polk County warehouse, and in their retail stores throughout the state. This business has a goal of employing 5,000 workers with disabilities. Advance Auto Parts is committed to providing time and accommodations needed for differently abled team members to meet performance standards. They provide team members with extensive onboarding and job-specific training, on-the-job coaching, and reasonable accommodations necessary for success. This business delivers Disability Awareness Training in English, Spanish, and French to ensure team members have a work environment where they can thrive.

Bob Sierra North Tampa YMCA
This smaller company has made a longstanding commitment to an individual with a disability throughout her life. Robyn Stawski, who has cerebral palsy, has worked as a Welcome Center Representative since 2006. In 2018, Robyn became a fulltime employee. She credits her success at the Y to reasonable accommodations and coworkers who understand the value of inclusion.

Dick’s Sporting Goods
This large retailer in the Tampa Bay and Central Florida area is very inclusive of people with unique abilities. They allow job coaches to conduct on-the-job training with 17 individuals successfully completing the program. Dick’s currently employs seven people with disabilities at its Westshore Mall store. Dick’s CEO Lauren Hobart supports including individuals of all abilities in the workforce.

Flagler College of St. Augustine and Aramark at Flagler College
Flagler College has a wonderful employee who has worked for the school for 35 years. Wade Spellman is a fulltime employee with benefits who is in the maintenance department of the college and has been helping to keep everything working properly for more than three decades. General Manager of Flagler Dining Services Jen Sikes says that they currently employ 13 individuals who identify as having some sort of disability, including individuals who are deaf. Aramark at Flagler College could not be happier with the partnership they have established with the Arc of the Saint Johns. There are seven individuals who receive services through the Arc of the Saint Johns and are employed by Aramark to work in the cafeteria at Flagler College. Aramark is grateful to employ so many differently abled individuals and create such a diverse team to serve the Flagler College community. This organization fosters an environment of inclusion with its staff and treats everyone with respect.

Glory Days Grill
This company partners with the Arc Nature Coast to provide jobs to 24 individuals. Arc Life Skills Centers send small groups of eight people to three restaurants in Pasco and Hernando counties to work. These individuals all are provided uniforms, which makes them feel included and part of the restaurant team. The workers roll silverware sets for the restaurants, so customers have neatly rolled napkins with the silverware inside. In addition, Glory Days employs other people with unique abilities including those with unseen disabilities.

Golden Corral of Jacksonville
This restaurant on Southside Boulevard in Jacksonville has a long history of hiring and supporting people with all kinds of abilities. Golden Corral currently employs four people with developmental disabilities. One employee has worked at the restaurant for five years unloading trucks and helping with cleaning. Another employee who has also been there five years works in the bakery, the cold foods section, and also does some cleaning. This restaurant works with two high schools, Terry Parker and Sandlewood High Schools, providing hands-on learning experiences as part of the Exceptional Education transition program. Dozens of people with unique abilities have worked at the Golden Corral restaurant over the years. The restaurant’s manager, Lawrence Johnson, believes in giving people a chance and working with them to be successful.

Helping Hands for Homemaking and Companionship, LLC
This company was created and is owned by an individual who is blind. Hattie Allen decided she wanted to start this new business several years ago because both her mother and husband were ill, and she saw the need for families to have assistance. Allen worked closely with the Division of Blind Services (DBS). DBS was able to provide counseling and guidance, plus assistance with her business plan. Blind Services helped her understand that she needed to be certified with the state of Florida to receive Medicaid, Medicare, and other types of insurance. Allen took all the required classes and certifications through the state and DBS supported her through the process. This company currently employs two other individuals with visual disabilities. Allen is a great example and role model for her community.

Sheraton Panama City Beach Golf and Spa Resort
The Sheraton PCB has proved to be an exceptional employer of people with unique abilities and is committed to inclusion. There are six employees with disabilities on the payroll. They have carved out jobs for two of their employees to meet their unique needs. Concerns due to the COVID-19 pandemic for one employee were met with flexibility. The hotel changed her job so that she could continue to earn an income. Another employee became so good at his job that the hotel managers recognized his abilities and moved him into another more challenging job to match his potential.

Sonic Drive-In of Yulee
This local restaurant has two very successful employees with unique abilities. One gentleman has been there about a year, and he does a little bit of everything at this Sonic restaurant. He helps out up front, fills the ice, preps food, sweeps the parking lot, cleans, and does maintenance. The other employee preps food and is called the “Onion Ring Maker.” He takes pride in making the onion rings just right. He coats the onion rings with batter three times. His manager says he makes them perfect! The restaurant has allowed these two employees to have fixed schedules, so they are able to ensure their transportation is timely and consistent. Sonic works closely with the Arc of Nassau. The Arc reports that the collaboration has been commendable and has created an optimal environment to foster quality job performance.

The Fresh Market of Aventura
This South Florida grocery store has worked very closely with Vocational Rehabilitation and its job coaches to ensure success for three individuals working at The Fresh Market. The store manager, who has a child with a disability, says she looks to hire people who are very friendly and nice. She says she hires for smiles and did not even realize the person she hired had a disability in some cases. One worker is in the deli and is very good at the difficult job of slicing block cheese just how the customer wants it. Another employee is a courtesy clerk to assist shoppers when they check out. The third employee works on the sales floor and unpacks products and stocks the items on the shelves.

### (A video of the ceremony will be available on APD’s YouTube channel) ###