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Nonprofit helps those with intellectual disabilities

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BRENTWOOD — Hard at work on a recent Friday morning, Manuel Rodriguez meticulously wiped down the 12-foot-long, steel-framed wooden tables before mopping the floors at the Brentwood Craft Beer and Cider taproom.

After checking to see that the silverware and napkins were stocked, and setting up the patio furniture, a shift leader took the 28-year-old aside to show him how to operate the cash register and take orders. When there’s time, he might show him how to make pizzas as well.

It’s Rodriguez’s first job, but he doesn’t work for the downtown pub. Rather, he is a client of Working Wonders, an innovative local nonprofit that offers paid work experience, helps with life skills and more for young adults with intellectual disabilities.

Working Wonders member Manuel Rodriguez, left, cleans tables as cofounder, Matt Schwab, sweeps the floor before the doors open to the public at the Brentwood Craft Beer and Cider in Brentwood, Calif., on Friday, March 8, 2024. Working Wonders focus on work, health and art for people with special needs. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
Working Wonders member Manuel Rodriguez, left, cleans tables as cofounder, Matt Schwab, sweeps the floor before the doors open to the public at the Brentwood Craft Beer and Cider in Brentwood, Calif., on Friday, March 8, 2024. Working Wonders focus on work, health and art for people with special needs. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 

“It’s fun,” Rodriguez said, noting he uses the money to buy games or movies. “It’s a little extra spending cash.”

On other days, the avid worker can be found taking lunch orders from teachers and administrators and delivering food for Dino’s Sandwich Shop to school offices, or doing prep work at Zephyr’s Bar & Grill or Brentwood Fine Meats, or cleaning the sidewalks along with other Working Wonders clients.

With only limited hours at minimum-wage pay, the money isn’t much, but it gives Rodriguez and other clients much more than just a paycheck. It’s a way for him to get out and socialize with others, and develop relationships and other life skills.

“We want to celebrate our clients. We want the world to know how great they are,” Matt Schwab, the nonprofit’s president, said. “And we want them to see their potential when they open doors for them to come in and work. They’re very dedicated, they pay attention to detail and they take a lot of pride in their work.”

Just ask Brentwood Craft’s shift lead Zack Revel, who says his best day at work is Friday when Working Wonders comes in to help with setup before the restaurant opens.

“Service is kind of my gig,” the easygoing pub worker said. “I like it a lot. And I think that’s like a good way to give back to the community.”

Schwab says “it’s not just about mop bucket.” Revel “shows them things like how to make pizza, how to use the cash register and take orders.”

Schwab and his wife Christine, with help from area educators, founded the nonprofit more than six years ago, hoping it could help their son, Matty, who has autism spectrum disorder, a condition that affects how one interacts with others. They worried about the then-14-year-old’s future and what he would do with himself after he finished school.

Schwab, then a newspaper sports writer and copy editor, and his wife, an advertising salesperson-turned-daycare provider, knew little about starting a nonprofit for adults with special needs. But they were determined. They talked with local educators and networked with the special needs community and discovered that they were not alone.

“Autism spectrum disorder diagnoses are going up exponentially,” Schwab said. “It’s a national, complicated problem, and society needs to know what to do. And so we’re trying to do our part out here in Brentwood and help these individuals have a better life and open doors for them.”

Through their newspaper connections, they learned about a similar program that former Las Vegas Review-Journal publisher Bob Brown and wife Melinda were heading called Opportunity Village. After Schwab and Brentwood Union School District Trustee Emil Geddes visited the village to “scope it out,” they went on to model their program after it.

For her part, Christine Schwab credits her husband and Geddes for “hashing out the program idea” while she stepped in to do the paperwork and transition her child daycare into a adult daycare.

The Schwabs started with six clients in 2018, with a three-to-one ratio of clients to staff. Today, they have 30 clients and two facilities and are looking to expand.

The Regional Center of the East Bay, which serves people of all ages with developmental disabilities, refers and prescreens clients before sending them to Working Wonders to see if it’s a good fit, Schwab said.

Twice named the local chamber’s “Nonprofit of the Year, “the program follows a three-prong approach — developing work  skills and job experiences, providing fine art education and health and fitness activities. They offer exercise, bowling, basketball and hiking. On Wednesdays, art classes are offered, but like all of their events, it is optional. Clients can attend all day from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays or just participate in some of the programs.



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