Constable: 30th work anniversary highlights what those with Down syndrome can do
Still newlyweds, Jack and Donna Schuh were looking forward to the birth of their first child in the fall of 1967. But the Vietnam War was raging, and Jack was drafted into the Army and stationed in Italy while the pregnant Donna stayed with her parents in Chicago.
Their daughter LeeAnne was born with Down syndrome, hearing problems and a serious heart defect. Doctors said the baby girl probably wouldn't live beyond her teens, and Jack came home after a hardship discharge.
Surgery at age 9 repaired LeeAnne's heart.
Now 53, LeeAnne sits on the couch in the Palatine home where she lives with her parents and talks about her job anniversary with Wendy's.
"Thirty years," says LeeAnne, wearing a shirt with the fast-food chain's logo and the Wendy character who sports the same red hair as LeeAnne. Most of those 30 years have been spent at the Wendy's at 265 N. Northwest Highway in Palatine.
"I clean tables and chairs. I do the forks and knives," says LeeAnne, reading off a list she wrote. "I do the trays and spoons. I sweep the floor. I wash my hands. I wear a mask."
As of 2019, only 19.3% of people with disabilities were employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, although one study reported that as many as 57% of people with Down syndrome are employed.
"The expectations, opportunities and lives of people with Down syndrome have changed dramatically since my great-uncle Leo was born with Down syndrome in 1909," says Dr. Brian Chicoine, medical director and co-founder of the Advocate Medical Group Adult Down syndrome Center in Park Ridge. "And it continues to change in many positive ways, as LeeAnne's 30 years of employment highlight."
The center, founded in 1991, interacts with more than 7,000 patients a year. "With improved educational, recreational and employment opportunities, we see people with Down syndrome learning more, doing more, contributing more and living fuller lives," Chicoine says.
When her parents moved to Schaumburg in 1971, LeeAnne started in the early intervention program at Clearbrook, an Arlington Heights-based nonprofit that provides services to people with developmental and intellectual disabilities and their families. After the family moved to Carmel, Indiana, LeeAnne went to Hamilton Heights High School, where one of her younger schoolmates was AIDS activist Ryan White.
After a short and unrewarding stint working at another fast-food chain as a young adult, LeeAnne needed a job. At the suggestion of a friend from church, Donna took LeeAnne to the local Wendy's in Carmel, where manager Tom Erickson gave her a job that stuck. When the family moved to Palatine, LeeAnne transferred to the Wendy's where she still works.
"She's a lovely person. We love her here," says one of her bosses.
Before COVID-19 restrictions, LeeAnne was on a bowling team, active in a program for adults with developmental disabilities through St. Theresa Catholic Church, and says she loved hanging with her four younger siblings and her 14 nieces and nephews, especially when her nieces took her out dancing or gave her a chance to sing "Don't Stop Believing" during karaoke outings.
Through the Northwest Suburban Special Recreation Association, LeeAnne also has been on vacations to Las Vegas, San Diego, a Colorado ranch, Niagara Falls and Bermuda. Her mom worked as a school nurse for the Northwest Suburban Special Education Organization, and her dad was an executive for a large printing company.
The best part about working at Wendy's is "my friends," says LeeAnne, who is looking forward to the day when dining crowds inside the restaurant return to normal.
"They love LeeAnne. It's been a wonderful situation," Jack says.
"She enjoys doing work, and she does a good job," Donna says. "She never has to be told to get out of bed. She wants to go to work.
"She feels they need her, and she needs them."