By Jeff Guy
HALSTEAD - When Konner Garnett first meets you, he may touch your arm or start to give you a hug. If a family member like his sister, Kacy, is around, she will remind Konner to shake hands the way he has learned in his job skills classes.
The 21-year-old Konner is quick to recite the various skills and rules he has learned through his jobs at Newton Medical Center and Halstead Health and Rehabilitative Serives. He placed the palms of his hands up to demonstrate how he serves plates in the cafeteria, holding them "on the bottom."
"Wash your hands," he said emphatically and ran down the many occasions for handwashing on his job. After touching food, taking out the trash, wiping down tables...
"When you touch your shoes," he said, lifting his black tennis shoe from the floor for emphasis, while sitting on the couch of the home he shares with his parents in Halstead.
Lisa Jolliff worked with Konner through a program called Project Search, which helps young people with developmental disabilities make the transition from high school to the job market. She said "there were a lot of people who were skeptical of whether he had the work skills."
A couple of years ago, Konner's mother, Theresa Garnett, would not have thought he could work without constant supervision. However, when the opportunity came for Konner to learn job skills, she and her husband, Stan, encouraged him and set their expectations high.
Konner then went on to distinguish himself, working in maintenance, dietary and housekeeping for NMC.
"He showed amazing skill and he was so eager to learn," Jolliff said. "He loved working out there, it showed. He wanted to do a great job. He worked hard."
Theresa said Konner's job at NMC "was a whole different level for him. He showed some independence that we didn't know for sure he had."
Konner's work at the hospital was part of a year-long internship and job training program through Project Search. During his final year of high school, he spent one hour in the classroom, worked from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at NMC and spent the last hour back in the classroom where job coaches helped him with things like building a resume and running through mock job interviews.
After graduating from high school and job training, Konner was hired to work in the cafetria at Halstead Health and Rehabilitative Services. His mother, a physical therapy assistant, works there also, but on a different shift. She feels that is a good thing.
"He sees having a job as part of being a grown-up," Theresa said. "He's very proud of his job."
Page 2 of 2 - Cognitively, Konner is at the level of a 7 or 8-year-old. Chronologically, he knows he is getting older and wants to be an adult. At age 16, he told his family he wanted to drive. So Kacy took him to All Star Sports in Wichita where they drove go-carts. At 21, he made it clear that he was old enough to drink, but when his dad handed him a beer, Konner declined.
"It smelled gross," he said.
Now he would like to have a girlfriend, probably because he has seen, both, his sister, Kacy, and brother Karsen get married within a six-month period.
His parents have always treated Konner the same as their other children. They have held him to high expectations, just as they have with his sister and two brothers.
"I can't say enough about his parents," Jolliff said. "They have been fantastic about expecting the most from Konner. They stayed right with him. That's so important."
She described Konner as a "morale booster" to his co-workers.
"Konner, I think, has broken down a lot of barriers for people with disabilities," Jolliff said.
He is the first employee hired at Halstead Rehabilitative to have a developmental disorder, Theresa said.
Jolliff said Kansas ranks 49th out of states hiring people with developmental disabilities.
"We've got to change that," she said.
Theresa's hope for Konner's future is that he continues to live rich, full days filled with activity. She does not want him resigned to a life of sitting in front of the television all day.
So far that does not seem likely.
Konner leads an active life: work; going to church on Sunday with his parents; participating with his brother Korye in a walk to rasise money for Down Syndrome research; going to a summer camp or two each year for people with developmental disabilities; playing basketball and participating in track with Special Olympics; and bowling with the family.
"Strikes," Konner said, telling what happens when he bowls.
"He's the best bowler I've ever seen," Kacy said.
Arms raised in the air, he said, smiling, "I'm a winner."