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A giant in his field

Giant Eagle values Michael Newman for his work abilities

Michael Newman is a happy employee, working in the frozen foods department of Salem Giant Eagle. He said, ”I want people to know that having any kind of disability does not define who you are or what you can do.”

SALEM — Step into the frozen food aisle at Salem’s Giant Eagle supermarket and you’ve entered Michael’s domain.

Ice cream, he’s got it. Frozen dinners, no problem. Frozen waffles, down this aisle on the left.

At age 41, Michael Newman seems finally to have found a job where he is valued for his abilities, not devalued for his disabilities, nor taken advantage of because he wants so much to have a job.

“Mike started with us 18 months ago,” said store owner Mark Siegel. “We originally had him bagging up front, but I had an employment need in frozen foods. We decided to give Mike a shot and he took right to it.”

He emphasized that Michael was not given a make-work job. He is a good employee. He pulls his weight. Frozen foods, Siegel said, “isn’t an easy department. Mike figured it out.”

In addition to helping restock the many hundreds of items in the frozen food aisles, Michael is part of the team which unloads refrigerated trucks which arrive three days a week. “I always have Mike here on truck days,” the owner said.

A transition coach provided through the Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities program worked with him for the first couple of weeks on the job. “It was getting used to the people I work with, how to fit in, and what I really need to do,” Michael said.

The OOD jobs coach “helped him with the flow,” said Siegel. “We showed her the process and she compartmentalized it for him.”

Having a job that he likes, that he’s good at, and where he is appreciated, has filled a need in his life that Michael has yearned after for 20 years. Other parts of his life – a loving family and a satisfying creative outlet in music – have long been rich and rewarding. As for his disabilities – those he has learned to accept and do the best that he can.

Michael has an identical twin: Matt Newman, well-known in Columbiana County due to his long tenure as band director and music educator in the Beaver Local School District.

Michael and Matt share an innate talent for music, a love of people and an outgoing personality. But Michael suffered an accident of birth. Doctors told his mother and father, Ruth and James Newman of Salem, that Michael may have choked, damaging his brain from oxygen deprivation. His main deficits are in motor skills and language. He has an auditory processing disorder and is on the autism spectrum.

Despite his challenges, Michael was enrolled in regular classes all through public school and college. At Mount Union University he and Matt both earned music degrees. He excelled in music and mathematics, but hit a wall when it came to language and writing skills. He squeaked by in English classes with help from tutors and his parents.

“College was a real challenge for Michael,” Ruth said, but his disabilities “did not keep him from singing or getting a music degree. He is very determined.”

An example of his determination is when he decided to learn the trumpet.

“It took him forever to learn,” his mother said. His instructor told her that it was hopeless, that he couldn’t do it. “You don’t understand: Mike wants to learn the trumpet,” she recalls telling his teacher.

How well does he play? Well enough to play trumpet over the past 20 years for the Quaker City Band, Salem Community Band, and Youngstown Area Community Concert Band.

Several times he helped brother Matt with Beaver Local band camp, often working with novice trumpet players. “He’s very patient with them,” Ruth said.

Mike has a strong voice and is a well-known performer in the area, singing with The Sound Bites quartet, Tapestries of Ohio Madrigal Singers, Village Singers, Kent State Communiversity Choir, and Salem First Presbyterian Church Choir. He has served as vice president of the Salem Music Study Club, and is a member of Ohio and National Federated Music Clubs.

Along with his mother, his brother Matt and sister Katherine, Mike “grew up in community theater,” singing and acting in 25 or more musical shows over the years. “He did ‘Momma Mia’ with me last summer,” said Ruth.

Though music satisfies the creative urge in his life, Michael “has always wanted to work, but finding a job was hard,” Ruth said.

Like many people with disabilities, Michael can only work part-time, or he loses the healthcare and other benefits provided through the federal SSI program. His parents justifiably worry about how he’ll get along after they’re gone.

There was one time in his adult life when he held a full-time job, for two and a half years. The work was menial and exhausting, the pay was low and relations with the employer were difficult. His parents finally convinced him that as much as he wanted to work, it was a bad situation.

The job at Giant Eagle “has been a Godsend,” his mother said. “He wants to do well and is very conscientious. If he knows what he’s supposed to do, he’s happy.”

Michael said the work can be challenging and though there’s a lot of routine, each day has something new and different. Working has made a huge improvement in his self-esteem, he said.

The managers at Giant Eagle are “good people to work for,” said Michael, adding that “this could be a job for the long haul.”

((This story is part of a series in observation of October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month. To learn more about the benefits of employing individuals with disabilities, people may contact the Columbiana County Board of Disabilities and its Reach 4 More jobs program at 330.870.4272.)

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