Max and Garth Larcen at Positive Vibe Café. Mike Freeman photo.
Cutting a commanding swath between simmering pots and the sparkling stainless-steel prep tables of the Willow Oaks Country Club kitchen, Kamron Greene's boxy 4-foot-nothing frame and mile-a-minute pace convey the confidence of someone three times his height.
The 22-year-old Greene looks smart in black pants, a crisp white shirt and a cloak of determined seriousness as he nods this way and points that way to indicate areas of this kitchen over which he holds dominion. A staging and polishing area for silver services, a complicated dishwashing station and a massive steel sink are his turf.
It's no illusion that Greene seems to hear nothing of the kitchen traffic through which he moves with ease. He is deaf, though the world's silence is a mere side effect of the medical nightmare that started with his premature birth. At age 9, a quadruple organ transplant saved his life. The fact is, Greene's presence here at Willow Oaks is one part miracle and one part Positive Vibe.
That's Max's Positive Vibe Café. As in Richmond's world-renowned job-training and self-confidence program founded not quite 10 years ago with the mission of proving that men and women with disabilities are just like everyone else: capable, productive and ready to work.
Inspirational stories like Greene's aren't hard to find among the graduates of Positive Vibe Café, tucked into the back corner of a strip mall off Forest Hill Avenue. Positive Vibe is about to celebrate a major milestone: On Nov. 18, after a four-week program of studies filled with 16 to 20 eager learners, the nonprofit will graduate its 500th student.
"That's a major milestone — when we started this program, nobody else in the country was doing anything like it," says Garth Larcen, the executive director of Positive Vibe. He co-founded the nonprofit with his son Max, who has cerebral palsy. Max was frustrated with the job market back in 2002 and brainstormed the idea with his dad as a way of improving not only his own life but the lives of others who found prospective employers concentrating more on their wheelchairs than their résumés.
A decade later, Larcen says, "we've learned how to really get this down pat."
The numbers bear out the success of the program's carefully honed concept. Among graduates, Larcen says, 35 percent are placed with an employer. Bragging about that number has on occasion gotten some push-back from folks suggesting that the program's success is limited, but Larcen brushes that off: "Do you know what the employment rate is for all people with disabilities? It's 22 percent!"
And Positive Vibe's placement rate counts only those who enter the restaurant industry, rather than finding employment elsewhere.
Besides, Larcen says, as important as a job may be, the most important thing that happens at Positive Vibe is spelled out in the restaurant's name.
"What we have seen is how each individual changes — their self-confidence and their self-image," he says.
That's certainly true of Greene, a 2006 graduate. Though he's an acute lip reader, Greene's deafness makes his speech difficult to understand. He communicates best through text messaging or on the computer, translating his own responses from American Sign Language to English, a difficult task because of different grammar and syntax.
"I would be sad if I didn't have job," he writes during a recent interview conducted in a richly paneled meeting room at Willow Oaks. "Now I'm happy to have a job, but I would like to help people."
Flashing a huge smile through his boyish mop of braided hair, Greene says he wants to give back to Positive Vibe by becoming a trainer there. "I'd like [to] teach them how to make skills."
Skills can be taught, but Larcen says that part of what makes Positive Vibe's program work was discovering that not everyone who applies for the program is like Greene. And trying to convince someone they're something that they're not can sometimes make
matters worse. Employers aren't fooled.
"At first we just felt like we could train anybody," says Larcen. "But setting people up for failure is just the worst thing you can do."
Learning to carefully select students was an early lesson. Students with cognitive disabilities were a group the program learned to screen carefully.
"With them, it's far more difficult to be able to tell if they can get a hold of what they learn and make use of it," he says. "Sometimes you just don't know until the class has graduated.
"And not everybody graduates," he says.
But many do.
Larcen offers the story of Josh, a graduate with cognitive disabilities who spent the first 22 years of his life entirely dependent on his mother. Shortly after his 2008 graduation, Larcen remembers getting a phone call from his mother, who was in tears in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven.
"She said ... these are tears of joy," Larcen says. "It was the first time in 22 years that he's gotten out of the car by himself to go buy a Slurpee."
To the average adult, that may seem small, but in a world defined by society's assumptions that people with disabilities must be dependent on others, it's huge.
"Josh's whole perspective about himself has changed," Larcen says. "What happens more than anything with Positive Vibe is they find themselves."
Greene offers firm proof, says Chris Welles, general manager of Willow Oaks Country Club and a board member of the Positive Vibe Foundation, who took an immediate liking to the kid who laughed at all of his jokes during the seminar he taught at Positive Vibe.
"I find myself amusing, but nobody else in the class was laughing except Kamron," Welles says. "Finally I asked one of the teachers, ‘He seems so nice. What's his disability?' And she said, ‘Oh, he's deaf.' I said to myself, ‘Son-of-a …' and hired him."
He's now a busboy of high regard at Willow Oaks Country Club, located not far from Positive Vibe. He found work there immediately after graduating.
"Kamron takes the bulls by the horns," says Emma Bless, a waitress at the club. "He's very speedy — a very,
very good worker."
But he's more than that, says Bless. He's an integral part of the Willow Oaks team.
"He's the most perceptive one here," she says. "If you're having a bad day, he's the first to come ask how you're doing."
His closeness with his coworkers stands out as he wends his way past the sous chef and a pair of waiters balancing ornate dishes of shrimp and grits. He barely pauses as he fist-pumps Eric Dahm, the club's head chef.
"He carries his weight," Dahm says affectionately of Greene. "Actually, he carries loads of ice that weigh more than he does, probably."
The country club recently hired another Postive Vibe graduate, who started in October. "It obviously depends on the person," Dahm says, "but those able to take it on, you get really good workers."
That's the message Larcen hopes will get out to more Richmond-area employers: A fighting force of 500 proud, capable graduates is certain proof that Positive Vibe is more than a feeling.
"We simply want to make it more difficult for employers to say no."