By Caroline Chan | March 17, 2023
Last year, The Village at Gainesville—a community in Gainesville, FL that’s part of SantaFe Senior Living—was awarded the Inclusive Employer of the Year award by the Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities (FCSUA). The community was nominated by Linda Musillo, who is the program administrator for Project SAINT.
Project SAINT, which stands for Student Access and INclusion Together, is part of Santa Fe College’s adult education department. It’s a small, selective and intensive non-credit college program for people younger than 25 who have intellectual disabilities. The students attend classes, participate in campus activities, receive vocational training and obtain internships; they are also matched up with a Santa Fe College student mentor.
“We are extremely honored to be recognized as the Inclusive Employer of the Year,” said Cheryl Huntington, assisted living dining services manager at The Village at Gainesville, of the 2022 award. The community accepted the award during a ceremony that took place at the Florida Postsecondary Education Planning Program Institute.
The Village at Gainesville has been working with Musillo and the Gainesville-based college for about six years. If Musillo notices a Project SAINT student who she feels would be a good fit for the community, she reaches out to The Village to start the application and interview process.
“We conduct an interview with the candidate and offer a position [if they’re a good fit,]” Huntington said. “It is no different than any of the hiring [that] we do for all associates for our campus.”
Currently, the students work in dining services—Huntington’s department—although the community’s environmental services department used to have a student as well. However, Huntington noted that The Village at Gainesville is open to the possibility of offering opportunities in different departments to the students.
For now, students working in the dining department sit with residents who are eating by themselves, help prepare food and assist with cleaning the dining room. Additionally, using their knowledge and experience, they work with the other staff members to improve the overall dining experience for the residents.
“We continually work to expand the knowledge of food preparation, cleanliness, sanitation, food safety and hospitality with our dining associates,” Huntington said. “With respect to individual limitations, we work with each associate to let them find their full potential in the food service field.”
Two of the students have been working at The Village at Gainesville for six years (so, for as long as the partnership has been going on) and another has been with the community for about three or four years. And, as Huntington explained, the students can continue to work for the company for as long as they want; they’re not restricted to a certain amount of time because they were in the Project SAINT program.
“We hope they stay and grow with the company,” Huntington added.
And she has seen the students make significant progress over the years.
“As our associates work together, they learn new skills to apply to their everyday responsibilities,” Huntington said. “Seeing someone grow and be a positive part of the team is rewarding.”
She is especially proud of one of the students.
“She started out very shy but gained confidence in herself and now engages with several residents. She recognizes their needs and remembers their likes and dislikes. She stays on task and contributes to the wonderful dining experience [that] our residents look forward to,” Huntington said. “I hope she can be an example to other facilities…[of] just how valuable the associates of this program can be.”
Huntington continued on.
“We hope that other communities in the area…recognize the value of working with the program at Santa Fe,” she said. “It has made such a positive difference in not only the lives of our associates, but [also] the lives of our residents.”
She added that The Village at Gainesville will continue to support the Project SAINT program in the years to come.
“We value our associates from the Santa Fe SAINT program. Their hard work and dedication support our mission to enrich the lives of our seniors,” Huntington said. “[And] our associates embrace the opportunity to come to work and have a sense of pride for what they do; they make a difference in our community.”