'Best job ever' - Albuquerque Journal

‘Best job ever’

Elijah Carabajal, an aspiring chef, works in the kitchen of the Embassy Suites. The way Carabajal figures it, he’s getting useful skills for his career after Project SEARCH. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)
Summer Griego works as a support staffer at the front desk at Embassy Suites in Albuquerque. She is a Project SEARCH intern. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)
Raquel Archuleta folds towels in the laundry room of the Embassy Suites. Archuleta, an aspiring barista, says she’s learned a lot in her time with Project SEARCH, even if she’s not crazy about her job in the laundry room. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)
Gracie Flanagan, 21, wipes down a chair in the dining area of the Embassy Suites hotel in Albuquerque on Halloween. Flanagan — an intern with Project SEARCH, which seeks to give high school graduates with intellectual and developmental disabilities work and life skills — gets rave reviews from hotel guests. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

The sixth floor of the Albuquerque Embassy Suites was a ghost town on Halloween. With just a few hours to go until the night’s festivities, guests were out and about, making for a slow morning for hotel staff.

All that could be heard was the dull roar of Luc Nguyen’s vacuum as it swept over every square inch of the hallway’s patterned carpets. That day, Nguyen, a 20-year-old intern, was tasked with vacuuming almost every floor of the hotel.

But he didn’t mind the work – in fact, he welcomed it.

“It’s easy,” he said.

Nguyen’s a jack-of-all-trades at the hotel, mostly working in room service, and takes pride in getting his work done.

“He’s a hustler; he likes to work and stay busy,” his teacher, Terry Casey, said.

Nguyen’s one of five interns working at the Embassy Suites as part of Project SEARCH, an international network of programs dedicated to giving high school graduates with intellectual and developmental disabilities the skills they need for work and life after high school.

The Embassy Suites program, one of seven in New Mexico, is a partnership of several organizations. Those include: Embassy Suites, the host business; Best Buddies, which helps the interns find long-term jobs; the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, which provides stipends and work attire; and Albuquerque Public Schools, among others.

It’s a partnership that benefits just about everyone involved, Embassy Suites General Manager Scott Cape said, adding that he and his staff treat the Project SEARCH interns like any other employee.

“It’s very rewarding to see these students grow in directions that they might not have the opportunity to do prior,” he said. “They do a great job.”

The program’s not all work, though. Every day, Casey, a teacher from APS, pulls the interns into a roughly hour-long class to help teach them skills that’ll help get them ready for life after the program – how to get along with coworkers, budgeting, health and fitness.

Luc Nguyen, 20, diligently vacuums the sixth floor hallway of the Embassy Suites hotel on Halloween. Nguyen, who takes pride in his work, was tasked that day with vacuuming almost every floor of the hotel. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Casey, who beamed with pride at every mention of her students, seized upon each opportunity she got to boast about how much they grow over the course of their three, 10-week rotations on the job.

“Best job ever,” she said. “They can grow so much – when they first get here, they’re so timid.”

One of the interns who’s seen the most growth this year, Casey said, is 19-year-old Summer Griego.

Griego’s duties, which are laid out on a laminated sheet she follows every day, mostly involve keeping things organized. That can include anything from stocking towels and shampoo to sanitizing guest key cards that have been turned in – all tasks she called “relaxing.”

But sometimes, part of her day is taken up answering phone calls to the hotel’s front desk, or helping guests. While neither one is her favorite part of her job, she’s become more comfortable talking with hotel guests, with Casey adding that Griego’s confidence has soared since she began at the hotel in August. Griego, for her part, was more modest about her abilities.

“I’m still working on communication with guests, (making) sure I have a good attitude, (smiling), of course,” Griego said.

For some, like Gracie Flanagan, who buses tables in the dining area of the hotel, talking with guests is the best part of the job.

The 21-year-old hopes one day to work at Dion’s, where she can bring the customer service skills she’s picked up working at the hotel to serving up pies. She even graciously promised to give Casey free pizza – but quickly revoked the offer, saying it wouldn’t be ethical.

Success story

In the last few years, the program at Embassy Suites has had strong success, with 100% of the 2020-21 cohort being placed in jobs after finishing the program despite it being a pandemic year.

Samuel Ruiz Arroyo, 22, was one of the interns in that class.

Not too long after he finished the program, he said he got a call from the head chef of the hotel kitchen, asking him to come back. To hear Ruiz Arroyo tell it, the chef couldn’t carry on without him.

“He told me ‘Hey, Sam, I loved seeing you work really hard – you put on a good (show), you seem responsible, you seem to know what to do – and I was thinking, how would you like to work here full time with me?’ ” Ruiz Arroyo said, recounting the phone call. “I said ‘OK, sure … I know how much you appreciate having me here.’ ”

Ruiz Arroyo’s success story is a common one for SEARCH interns, said Roxanne Burgos, deputy director of jobs at Best Buddies in New Mexico.

“Having all of the skills that they learned (from Project SEARCH), they’re just better prepared to go right into a job,” she said. “It’s just such a joy to watch them all year long, and see how they progress and grow.”

Working in the hotel kitchen is a stepping stone for Elijah Carabajal, who has aspirations to one day become a chef himself and figures he’s learning the tricks of the trade prepping food at Embassy Suites.

“I like being here,” he said. “(It’s) what I want to do.”

Raquel Archuleta, on the other hand, is champing at the bit to get out into the world.

This rotation, she’s tasked with the glamorous job of drying and folding hotel laundry, which Archuleta said can feel never-ending. So she’s ready to go after one of her biggest passions in life – coffee, or rather, being a barista.

For the time being, though, she’s just soaking in all she can at the job she has, acknowledging she still has room to grow.

“This helps me to build my confidence, skills and strengths, to see what I’m good at,” she said. “I’m still learning new things in here.”

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