Return to independence, personal growth comes with retail job

When another disability provider closed its doors last year, Michael Zalesky, who is in his mid-30s, was let go from a warehouse crew after three years. Family said he loved the work.

Little did he know that months later, he would be employed independently at Marshalls, close to home, thanks in part to ProAct employment specialist Cindy Besonnie.

“He was building up his confidence,” said Besonnie. His mother, Jill Zalesky, said that after transition school, Michael did office work at a foot and ankle clinic in Eden Prairie, but when that opportunity ended, it took quite a while for the other provider to find him work. He drives, has his own car and lives with his parents in Prior Lake.

Besonnie and ProAct moved quickly in 2020 to help. The specialist was on a job coaching assignment across the road at Cub Foods in Savage one day when she decided to see if Marshalls was hiring. A supervisor said the clothing store used to have a work crew of people with disabilities, but just one person was left and they needed help.

Zalesky interviewed, and became a merchandise associate in January. Much of his work is in the product prep area. Pulling silica packets, he unboxes and stacks new shirts before hangers are added to send them out to the sales floor. He works with other clothing, as well and he’s prepped handbags for retail display.

“I was super impressed with how quickly they found it for him,” said his mother, who offered kudos to everyone involved. He seems to really like Marshalls, and it’s close, she said.

“He does really well,” said Assistant Manager Stephanie Whalen. “He’s punctual and he’s always looking for extra things to do.”

Social interaction is his main challenge, said Besonnie, but opportunities here are making this easier. During his interview, he checked out the back room and was greeted by a friend he knows through Special Olympics. “That encouraged him too, knowing a familiar face there,” she said.

Besonnie is helping him with soft skills, such as asking for help when needed, getting to know staff names and building rapport. “Once you get to know him, he can chatter,” she said. There’s also some positive teasing back and forth with a coworker.

Michael bowls in a league each week with his father and other relatives, and Jill said he hopes to get back into it with Special Olympics once things start opening up again.

At 1:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, the backroom was buzzing with workers and products, and there was a good group of shoppers on the floor. Marshalls occupies a portion of the old Rainbow Foods store, next door to a busy Fresh Thyme grocery.

“He loves to get out and go work,” said his mother. “And, he’d be totally fine never leaving the house- either.” She works from home and the two talk frequently.

Zalesky has washed storefront windows and greeted customers, though his preferred role is among coworkers in the back. “Even though that’s not your comfort, you did it,” said Besonnie. “Yep, I did it,” he replied.

Michael is working three days a week, and would like more hours. He receives work visits from Besonnie once a week and those encounters will soon be reduced to two per month.