The Marriott Foundation’s Bridges – from School to Work program is celebrating its 25th anniversary. The famous hotel chain’s altruistic wing was inspired, in part, by the late Stephen Garth Marriott, the founder’s grandson. He was diagnosed with a terminal degenerative disease as a teenager, yet went on to enjoy a successful career.
The Bridges program has helped more than 18,000 young people around the country acquire skills and find real world jobs. At a recent awards dinner for the program, ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and Lia Martirosyan met with Richard E. Marriott, chairman of the board of Marriott’s Host Hotels and Resorts, and president of its Foundation for People with Disabilities.
Chet Cooper: When we were first introduced, you had a huge map of the world covering your office wall.
Marriott: It’s still there.
Cooper: And you had all these dots on it, and I remember saying: “It looks like you’re taking over the world.” And you said, “One day.”
You’ve talked about a family connection to Bridges, which I didn’t know about before.
Marriott: Stephen Garth Marriott is my brother’s son. He was 54 years old when he passed away from a degenerative mitochondrial disease earlier this year. The cell structure in his body began to deteriorate, a condition first identified when he was only 14 years old, so he had it for 40 years. First it took his sight, then his hearing, and finally his mobility. Then he had a fall that brought on his demise. But he never complained. He went to work every day, where he was a terrific leader and master teacher, instructing thousands of Marriott sales associates down through the years, and this was after he was totally blind.
He would get up and give a fabulous talk, and he had an incredible memory. He could reel off 50 names, he won awards and had a very positive attitude. He was on our board for the Bridges Foundation for almost 20 years. Tad Asbury, our executive director, worked with him directly; Stephen would report to him on the Bridges program’s progress every quarter. Stephen was always interested in Bridges, always expecting us to do more and more and more. And of course, the more disabled he got, the more he appreciated what Bridges was doing. He was a great mentor and a great role model for Bridges. His sister, Debbie Harrison, my niece, recently took over his role as the person in charge of culture for Marriott; she now goes around to talk about how important it is to take care of people, and give them the opportunity to do meaningful work. We have stressed that in our company and in our family through the years.
Lia Martirosyan: I noticed that I. King Jordan is on your board of directors.
Marriott: He was the president of Gallaudet University; one of the few universities in the US strictly for people who are deaf. He was their first deaf president, an incredible guy. He’s been on our board for 15 or 20 years. He’s a terrific fundraiser, and a real celebrity in the disability community. He’s been a loyal supporter of Bridges throughout the years.
Cooper: How does Bridges work with a company and/or students from high school?
Marriott: As you know, Bridges doesn’t have anything to do with the Marriott corporation itself; it’s a separate foundation under the Marriott Foundation for People with Disabilities. Bridges from School to Work has employer representatives in eight cities, and we’ll soon add a ninth—Baltimore, MD. These employer representatives work with special education and vocational rehabilitation groups in these cities. They identify students who are possible Bridges candidates. Our employer representatives work with these young men and women to train them to apply for a job, perform well in an interview, do the work required, and accept responsibility. Then we identify employers and talk to them about what the Bridges program has to offer. A lot of companies have never hired anybody with a disability; they’re afraid and don’t know what to do with this population.
We explain that usually there’s really no extra accommodation needed for most people with disabilities, unless they have a severe physical condition and they need to provide moderate facilities. The most important thing is identifying a job that the young person can do, and getting the right fit. We’ve found that once a company gets involved with a program and hires their first person, they discover that it’s a win-win situation for the company, the youth and the community.
Cooper: That’s a win-win-win!
Marriott: (laughs) Everybody wins! For instance, there was this sweet young lady named Maria in Dallas. She was hired by Bank of America, and they’d never hired anybody out of the program. She has spina bifida and can barely walk. She said, “People don’t think I can do anything because I can’t walk straight.” But the company hired her and she is a sensation. She’s had three promotions. She was so darn good that they’ve hired 32 people since from the Bridges program.
To get companies and employers to sign up, it’s got to be to their benefit. We’re all in business to make a profit and be successful. When you hire a young person with a disability, you expect them to perform. And they do. That’s what employers are finding out. These kids can really make contributions. They can help with morale, the bottom line, and participation in their community. It’s a terrific opportunity for them to bring these young people along.
Martirosyan: You also talked recently about a student who got a job through UPS. I guess he had to have a certain class driver’s license that allowed him to drive a truck?
Marriott: This young man had a severe learning disability, but he could get a driver’s license. He’d passed the written part of the test, but required five driving tests before he passed that part. We’re working with these kids to give them the self-confidence to say, “Go ahead and apply for a job and get the necessary requirements done.”
So many times they’re from dysfunctional families or tough inner-city areas where they get no opportunity to do this. We give ‘em a little nudge, a little help, a little self-confidence that allows them to do things they wouldn’t have been able to do on their own. And this young man, who joined UPS 16 years ago, is now making $70,000 a year as a driver, supporting his family with three kids. He’s got a future. It’s fabulous.
Cooper: So what age group does the Bridges program work with?
Marriott: It’s basically working with kids in special education groups in high school and seniors in high school. That’s the target group. Every now and then somebody will come in who’s a little different, but typically that’s where most of the kids come from.
Cooper: At this point, they don’t have a résumé yet because they’re coming right out of high school?
Marriott: Some of them have had a little previous work experience. There was a person I talked to recently who said, “One of the most important things about getting a job is to have work experience.” What we try to do is get them a 90-day internship. They’ll get paid. It’s tentative and depends on how well they perform as to whether they’ll be offered a full-time job. Seventy percent of the kids who get internships get offered a full-time job. That’s a heck of a lot better than the typical kids out there who don’t have disabilities.
Cooper: How do you find the students?
Marriott: Every city has a whole department of people who help people with disabilities. They help us identify kids in special ed classes they think would be appropriate for work outside. We talk to them, work with them, go to the schools and get the young people jobs.
Martirosyan: Do you mentor the companies?
Marriott: We’ve dealt with 4,800 different employers down through the years. We’ve educated them on how to work with people with disabilities and to be comfortable with them. In fact, increasing the comfort level is the single most important thing we do. We show them how they can best apply their individual talents. AMC movie theaters is our Employer of the Year here in Los Angeles, so we celebrated that recently. They hire lots of these kids to take tickets and sell concessions; the young people are a tremendous asset to them, and they’re a tremendous asset to these young people.
These kids are great for a company’s morale. People who work with them say they’re truly excited about their jobs. They show up, they work hard, they’re happy. They’re excited to be there and to be performing a useful service. When you go through the line at the supermarket, these kids are working the cash registers, doing the bagging, they smile, they laugh, they’re happy to see you. It makes you feel good. It makes everybody feel good. They’re great. There are so many different levels of disability that you can find something for virtually everybody to do.
Cooper: You have the eight cities now, are you looking to expand outside the US?
Find out more at bridgestowork.org.