When people hear about Whidbey’s Naval Air Station, they likely picture big gray barracks, Navy sailors tracking submarines and loud Growlers. But many might not think about the people who serve America by taking care of our troops and base behind the scenes.
On Oct. 6, these 122 unsung heroes were acknowledged with the Medium Non-Profit Employer of the Year Award by the Governor’s Committee on Disability Issues and Employment.
For over 50 years, an Oak Harbor nonprofit has been giving a chance to those who often are excluded by the job market: people with disabilities. New Leaf has been serving the base since 1973, when it was awarded the first Federal Service Contract. It was the first time a federal agency had purchased a service from people with disabilities. Today, New Leaf holds the oldest active federal service contract in the country under the AbilityOne Program — which finds employment for people with disabilities.
Under the AbilityOne Program, New Leaf has to reserve 75% of labor to people with a certified disability, CEO Steve Jacobs said. The disability can be physical, like blindness, or developmental, like autism.
Jacobs said that many people don’t disclose they have a disability when they apply for a job. This is not the case at New Leaf, where a disability is what makes candidates qualify for the job.
Director of Operations Glenn Kincaid said that seeing people’s joy when they land the job and celebrate their first paychecks is the most rewarding part of working at New Leaf. Whether they need the money to become independent and get their first car, or buy a Play Station, a paycheck can be a great source of pride.
“A lot of the times, people with disabilities are told they can’t do it,” Jacobs said.
Working at New Leaf comes with full-time and part-time options and benefits. However, although employees are paid above minimum wage, they are no strangers to the housing crisis on Whidbey, and most don’t qualify for affordable housing because they make more than the annual median income requirement. Some live with roommates to split the cost of rent; others, like Gene Pulu, live in trailers. A few less fortunate employees live in homeless shelters. Jacobs said the nonprofit is working on a housing initiative to accommodate its employees, though he is unsure of what it would look like.
Still, the job represents an opportunity to develop skills and self-confidence. The nonprofit helps them with learning skills like cooking and financing, and even getting their drivers’ license.
“It’s not just bringing people with disabilities in here to do a job and that’s it,” Jacobs said. “They’re developing career, lifelong goals here.”
Timmy Aston, for example, is a 24-year-old Oak Harbor resident who loves Looney Tunes, Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog, and is determined to save enough money to move to Japan. At Admiral Nimitz Hall Galley — the base’s kitchen and dining area — Aston is working towards his goal by washing and drying kitchenware, wiping tables and prepping food.
“I love taking responsibilities,” he said.
Pulu is a model employee at New Leaf, so much that Kincaid described him as a “one-man wrecking crew” who takes care of the smallest details. In 2019, he was awarded the William M. Usdane Award by AbilityOne for his heart and strong work ethic.
“Wherever you put Gene, he gets the work done,” Jacobs said.
Pulu works on grounds, and said he is happy to give back to the military for their service to the country. Jacobs and Kincaid described him as a friendly man with a strong work ethic.
Pulu moved from Samoa to follow his sister-in-law, who was stationed at NAS Whidbey, and his brother. He first worked for New Leaf between 1998 and 2004, and after leaving to try other jobs, he returned to the nonprofit six years ago and has been working on grounds ever since.
Pulu said he enjoys his job because it allows him to work outside, interact with people and socialize.
“We’re kind of a big family,” Kincaid said. The nonprofit often plans picnics, movie nights and parties. Both Aston and Pulu have made friends who make the job more enjoyable.