VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (NNS) -- In conjunction with National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), the Dam Neck Galley by the Dunes hosted their annual appreciation luncheon for its Chesapeake Service Systems (CSS) employees, Oct. 10.
CSS is a private, non-profit organization that provides job opportunities for people with disabilities in Hampton Roads. In addition to providing jobs, CSS provides its employees with transportation to and from their work place.
Dam Neck Food Services Officer Ed Ruhling kicked off the luncheon by welcoming the CSS employees, family members and guests and inviting them to eat a meal specially prepared by the Navy's culinary specialists.
"This is my third year doing this for CSS and I absolutely love it. If it wasn't for them, this galley would not function. They are the backbone to Dam Neck Galley, so I am proud to give back every time they ask me to," said Culinary Specialist 1st Class Jason Lowry.
"I have a special needs child, so I look at what they do for the surroundings and what the company does for them, thinking that maybe someday if my son falls into that particular [category] that there's going to be hope for him, like there is for these people who are challenged in that way," Lowry continued.
After everyone was served, Ruhling provided some background about the luncheon. "It actually started with Tom [Swanston] in 2008; he had come over here and presented the Dam Neck active duty crew with a nice appreciation plaque."
The plaque was from CSS to show their appreciation for what the galley staff does for them, the company and their employees. Ruhling said it was decided that the galley wanted to reciprocate the display of appreciation for the CSS staff.
"The employees of CSS here at this galley come seven days a week, work every day providing a service and meals to our active duty. So, we should do something for you and prepare a nice meal for you to sit down and enjoy. We'll take a little special time out to say thank you and that we appreciate you."
After giving a brief history of NDEAM, Ruhling took a moment to speak "from his heart."
"All of you get to come to work every day, the military beside each of you. You all come with smiles and great positive attitudes as soon as you walk through the door. Some of you are singing. Some of you are even dancing," Ruhling explained, as guests laughed and picked out their singing and dancing co-workers. "That fills my heart with joy."
CSS Executive Director Thomas Swanston started his speech by praising the military for their part in employing people who have disabilities.
"It's National Disabilities Employment Awareness Month, here's some awareness; we stand at 70 percent unemployment for people with disabilities. That is a horrendous problem." Swanston said. "We have a war going on, on unemployment for people with disabilities. So, who comes to fight that war? Our military! Our military across the country is employing hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities. That is an amazing domestic battle because our military fights for those who can't fight for themselves."
Swanston discussed the impact having a job has on the CSS employees. "The amazing transformations from the day that someone comes to one of these galleys to sometimes it's weeks, sometimes it's months, sometimes it's years, but we see a person go from being completely introverted, completely disabled, barely functioning to where they are flourishing," Swanston said.
Swanston explained to the CSS employees why he considers them heroes. "You said to yourselves, 'I don't care what the world thinks, I don't care what my barrier is, I'm going to overcome it'. You folks who have a disability, I can't say enough about you. You just needed an opportunity and you charged through the door."
The CSS site manager for the Dam Neck Galley, Kisha Hunt, read a letter from the parents of Joseph Briggs Jr., who for the second year were unable to attend, but asked that their letter be read.
In the letter, the family discussed their appreciation for the organizations involved in the program that their son has "been allowed to be a part of," and what it has done for him. "We don't know what Joey would be doing if it wasn't for this wonderful program. It has helped so much towards his social development, independence and self-esteem. This program gives him the feeling of being a productive member of society.
"We are both retired from our careers but Joey does not ever let us forget he is the only employed person in the house," Hunt read as the room filled with laughter. "Joey now feels he is ready to have his own place and live on his own. We are sure without a doubt, that his independence came from being in this program."
Hunt then invited family members and employees to share how CSS has impacted their lives.
A guest hollered "best dressed!" as Antoine Williams approached the podium in his all black suit. "I'm proud to be working here, it's like my family away from home and it's thanks to you all that I'm best dressed," Williams joked. "It's like they say, when you got it you flaunt it!"
He continued by thanking Hunt, the employees, Ruhling and the bus drivers for their service. "They're the best people that I could work with and I thank everybody for allowing me this opportunity."
Lori Harris also shared why she enjoys her job. "I've got a lot of friends here, a lot of Navy people I mess with," she laughed. "I love you guys so much, you're like family to me. I love this job!"
NAS Oceana Commanding Officer Capt. Kit Chope discussed a common theme the guests had brought up. "Everybody who came up here said something about family. A family is a group of people who respect and trust and care for each other, and are selfless in their service to each other, and that's what we have here and it's wonderful."
Chope discussed how he's gotten the opportunity to get to know Swanston and his wife Delinda over the last couple of years. "You want to talk about the word 'hero' and you look at somebody whose vision and whose passion for a quarter of a century has brought us into this room today, has brought many of you all into a greater world, into a greater life, into a bigger family. I am absolutely in awe of what you have helped build here, your vision, your love, your creativity and your passion are admirable. I am absolutely humbled and I'm proud."
For more news from Naval Air Station Oceana, visit www.navy.mil/local/oceana/.