Twenty-two-year-old Santos Serpaz stands scarcely taller than the lunch counter at the downtown Los Angeles fast-food restaurant where she works, but in her bright blue Del Taco uniform, she stands proud.
"I am a good worker," Serpaz said in Spanish. "People treat me very well."
She and eight other mentally retarded adults are the first members of a pilot program by Goodwill Industries of Southern California to bring the disabled into the mainstream by training them for jobs at Southland fast-food chains.
Operating out of a storefront franchise next to the Goodwill shop on Broadway near 2nd Street, the rehabilitation agency has started its pupils in jobs that include frying hamburgers, making change, pouring soft drinks and monitoring the taco bar.
The trainees work alongside other Del Taco employees and are supervised by two Goodwill job coaches.
Like most of the others, Serpaz had never served the public before beginning Goodwill's program. She had held a series of sub-minimum-wage jobs at Goodwill outlets, such as sorting castoffs on a conveyor belt, folding clothes or hanging price tags on housewares.
Now she's a $4.25-an-hour restaurant hostess--"in charge of seeing that customers have anything they want" according to the franchise manager--and she may have earned something even better.
"I think she's going to be our next employee of the month, and I'm planning to give her a raise," said franchise manager Jaime Flores. He said customers find Serpaz an efficient and friendly worker.
"I like to serve people," Serpaz said in Spanish. "They smile at me and give me tips. I make even more money than I expected."
Trainee Pamela Harris, 36, who did a stint at Goodwill's cafeteria before moving to Del Taco, said: "I like this job. I meet a lot of different people, and the food is better here."
Cheri Cook, 22, said she enjoys her job very much. "The people are nice," Cook said. "I learned a lot here. Learning how to make sodas and shakes was the best part."
Restaurant officials said the program is also expected to benefit the fast-food industry, which lately has had problems finding reliable employees as its traditionally adolescent labor pool has diminished.
"We are in between baby booms," said Wayne Armstrong, a Del Taco executive, adding that retarded adults "probably have a better work ethic" than teen-agers.
Goodwill spokesman Daniel M. Mulcahy said, "Given the track record that disabled people have established as loyal and career-minded employees, we will be filling this void with people who have . . . a real desire to work, but also have the training in a realistic environment."
"Retarded individuals are steady employees," said Norris A. Frohow, Goodwill's director of training and evaluation. "The only difference here is that with a normal employee, you'd expect them to be productive within a week's time. With developmentally disabled, that will take a little longer.
"We're looking for them to be fully productive within about five weeks. We will keep them in the Del Taco for about 10 weeks. After that, they will be found a job near where they live, be it another Del Taco, McDonald's, Burger King or Carl's Jr."
Frohow said his agency plans to place at least 60 disabled people at area restaurants this year after they complete their Del Taco training.
"The biggest stumbling block to the developmentally disabled keeping a job is really not their ability to do work . . . but their ability to interact with fellow workers and with management," he said.
"When able-bodied people have an ongoing relationship with co-workers, they begin to realize their similarities far outnumber any of the ways they may be different."