Resident with Down syndrome helps customers with a smile

It’s tough to keep a job for a decade, so for La Cañada Flintridge resident Katie Kirchner, being recognized for her 11 years at Vons supermarket is a special moment. But Kirchner, 31, isn’t just a hard-working and enthusiastic employee. She also has Down syndrome, and is receiving a 2012 Voice Award from the Down Syndrome Association of Los Angeles.

Kirchner will be given the award at the association’s March 17 SunDown Select Spring Benefit, along with three other adults with Down Syndrome who are being recognized for their accomplishments.

Down syndrome is also called Trisomy 21, a reference to the specific tripling of the 21st chromosome that causes 95% of its occurrence. It is found in one of every 693 births in the United States.

Lili Joseau, Kirchner’s mother, said that it was great to see her daughter get some recognition for her dedication to the job.

“After all these years of Katie working at Vons, it’s so nice to be recognized for all her hard work, because it’s not easy for Katie to work, like it is for us,” she said.

Kirchner said that she enjoys her work as a courtesy clerk, bagging groceries and helping customers, but she what she really enjoys is her paycheck and going shopping.

Bernie Riccella, assistant manager at Vons La Cañada, said that Kirchner definitely earns her keep.

“She’s one of my best employees,” Riccella said. “I’ve been in the company 18 years, and it’s hard to find the ones where, when you ask her to do something, she’ll do it. [Kirchner] doesn’t hesitate, she does her job well.”

Riccella said that Kirchner’s upbeat personality is a hit among customers who have been shopping at the local Vons for years.

“She’s always in a good mood, she makes nice comments to everybody, the employees like her, and customers actually love her as well,” he said.

Jim Hodgson, director of administration of funding for the Down Syndrome Assn., said that the organization first heard of Kirchner through another of the Voice Award winners, Jamie Brewer, who won a role on FX’s “American Horror Story” that Kirchner had auditioned for.

Hodgson also said it was a happy coincidence to highlight a Vons employee, since the SunDown Select Benefit is being hosted by the Von der Ahe family, whose patriarch Charles Von der Ahe founded the market in 1906. The family sold the chain in 1969.

Hodgson said that the awards were meant not only to recognize the achievements of the winners, but to inspire other parents to see what their children with Down syndrome can achieve.

“Parents absolutely benefit from seeing the potential, it allows people to dream bigger and set goals,” he said. “[The awards] are constantly expanding the goals and the definition; it’s fracturing that crazy stereotype that many of us have.”

For Joseau, the award is one more outgrowth of a local community that has been supportive of Kirchner.

“[The La Cañada community] has been so supportive, anywhere we go, everywhere we go people know her,” she said. “Some people that do have special-needs children really tell me what an inspiration it is to see Katie working all these years, and it just gives people hope that children like ours can go out there and work.”

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