The situation was a little too much to soak in all at once for Jessica Zook.
So she did what she naturally does under such circumstances of surprise and embarrassment.
She giggled. A lot.
“She’s always bubbly,” said Kari Feyerherm, who leads a janitorial crew that includes Zook.
Zook got a shock before the start of her shift last week when Michele McKenna dropped in the break room and handed her a certificate and a sleek glass trophy recognizing her for her dependability and dedication to her work.
McKenna, the executive director of New Leaf, Zook’s employer, then read the inscription and offered her personal congratulations — with each word turning Zook’s face into a different shade of red.
The award came from the Seattle field office of SourceAmerica, a parent organization of nonprofit agencies that employ people with significant disabilities, such as Oak Harbor-based New Leaf.
Zook, 24, has a medical condition known as hydrocephalus, which causes a buildup of fluid in her brain.
Surgeons placed a shunt in the back of her brain to drain the fluid.
“She worked two-and-a-half years at the (Admiral Nimitz) Galley and never missed a day until she had to have brain surgery,” McKenna said.
“I talked to her mother while she was still in the hospital in Seattle. Her mother said, ‘She’s doing fine. All she can talk about is going back to work.’ ”
New Leaf employs 110 individuals and has contracts at locations across Naval Air Station Whidbey Island as well as off base under the federal AbilityOne program.
To be eligible for the program, a nonprofit must employ a workforce in which at least 75 percent of its employees have a significant disability. About 80 percent of New Leaf’s employees meet that criteria.
Zook’s employment with New Leaf shifted from food server to janitorial services. Since January, she has been part of a crew that works at the Child Development Center on Regatta Drive.
Zook’s willingness to go above and beyond expectations prompted McKenna to nominate her for the William M. Usdane Award, a nationally recognized SourceAmerica award.
Although Zook didn’t receive the national award, the Seattle office recognized her as part of the Northwest Region.
“It’s awesome,” Zook said.
Zook used the same word to describe New Leaf, which was established in 1969 by parents of adults with developmental disabilities in order to provide them employment opportunites. It has been based on Whidbey since 1972 and has grounds maintenance, food service and janitorial contracts across the base.
New Leaf employees also stock and clean the commissary at NAS Whidbey.
“It’s my first job ever,” Zook said.
Zook is from Bulgaria and was adopted from an orphanage and moved to the United States with her mother. She lives in Oak Harbor.
“She is a really, really hard worker,” said co-worker Jacob Davis. “She would literally help out anybody in need if they’re running late or behind on their task.”
“She’s been a blessing since she’s been here,” Feyerherm said.