Skyler Daniels brings contagious enthusiasm to the Maple Valley business world

Eric Mandel 

Covington | Maple Valley Reporter

Skyler Daniels was pushing around a broom when a sweaty man on an elliptical machine called out, “Hey, Sky, what’ve you been up to?”

“Nothin’,” Daniels responded. “Workin’.”

Usually, Daniels would stop to chat about the baseball he caught during batting practice of the Mariners game or encourage the man on his workout. But Daniels was feeling a bit nervous — he was being followed by a newspaper reporter with a camera and had just finished an interview about his job. Excited and nervous. Usually it’s only excited — a quality that led him to being named Prom King at Kentlake High School and to earning multiple metals at the Washington Special Olympic Games. He seems to glow with a unique brand of enthusiasm that makes those around him feel better. At ease.

“People gravitate towards him,” said Mike Milat, 22, manager of Maple Valley Fitness. “Within the first two months of being here he knew more people than I do.”

Daniels, 20, is a member of Trillium Employment Services, a nonprofit organization that has helped businesses recruit, train and retain employees with developmental and intellectual disabilities in Washington for more than 30 years. Trillium serves King, Kitsap, Pierce and Clark Counties.

Trillium helped Daniels get an apprenticeship with Maple Valley Fitness in February of 2012. He’d clean the cardio equipment, vacuum, mop, distribute flyers, hand out raffle tickets and shake the Maple Valley Fitness sign outside. He made quite an impression.

“His dedication to the work is greater than everybody on the staff,” Milat said. “The hardest thing to teach is enthusiasm and personality and he has that.”

With Trillium’s help, Milat specifically crafted a part-time, paying position for Daniels in summer of 2013. He typically works between 2-4 hours per day, Monday through Thursday.

“It was pretty exciting,” said Daniels, who also helps set tables for the Covington Rotary Club on Fridays. “It was my first paying job, actually.”

Milat said Daniels is one of, if not the, best promoters of the club, and that his enthusiasm adds to the neighborhood gym’s culture.

“People don’t have a guard up when he’s around,” Milat said. “And that’s a big deal.”

Daniels’ job coach, James Wilson, said what’s best about Daniels’ situation is that his job at the gym has never been a charity case. Whether it is mopping, collecting boxes or giving new member tours, Daniels wants to learn and is willing to do any task with pride.

“I think we can all learn from that,” Wilson said.

Employment services like Trillium have not always received support in Washington.

According to Margaret-Lee Thompson, a board member of the Arc of the United States, parents previously put children with developmental disabilities into institutions up until the 1960s, when a “social revolution” of sorts began. In the 1970s, a state law passed that said every child could go to school. All Washington schools are also required to have an 18-21 year old transition program.

Thompson said King County’s system went through large changes in the early 90s, when legislators realized there was no funding to help let these individuals contribute in the workforce.

“The system has had to catch up,” said Thompson, who’s son, Dan, had Down Syndrome, but earned a job in the Microsoft mail room in 1990. He worked that position for 14 years before he died from a heart condition.

Legislators approved the Vulnerable Individuals Priority Act, which was sponsored by Sen. Joe Fain (R-Auburn), with robust bipartisan support in April. Among the act’s goals are to support more than 1,000 people with developmental disabilities who want to work, but require supported employment and assistance to look for jobs.

Fain said there’s a wait list estimated at between 5,000-15,000 individuals who are trying to apply and be eligible for certain employment or other needed services.

Fain , who’s wife, Steffanie, is a member of the Trillium Board of Directors, said supportive employment programs have been one of his main priorities.

“I think the state has a moral responsibility towards these families and I also think it makes good financial sense to have these individuals working to their capabilities,” he said.

Thompson said the VIP legislation is “probably the biggest thing I’ve seen in my 45 years as a parent advocate.”

“It’s just incredible,” she said. “I’ve never seen so many people get services in one fell swoop.”

There are about 30 employment service agencies in King County like Trillium that serve eligible individuals aged 22 and older. Roughly half of those choose to participate in the King County School-to-Work program, which primarily serves students who turn 21 and will be exiting their school transition program, according to Richard Wilson, King County’s School-to-Work Program Manager.

Trillium has the strongest presence in the South King County area, currently serving 23 students from five different school districts — Tahoma, Kent, Federal Way, Auburn and Renton. Other primary vendors in the area are Vadis, SKCAC Industries and Northwest Center. Wilson said the School-to-Work program serves about 120 students per year in the county.

Daniels was initially interested in food service, but he’s been able to follow his passion for sports. He arrives at work early every day — often times to work out. As a member of the Kentlake football team, he saw the field on the last play of his senior year, lining up as running back. The game ball can be found at his house. He participated in the cycling, bowling, softball and basketball events at the most recent Special Olympic games. When asked which event he’s best at, Daniels responded: “Everything, actually.”

“Typical jock answer,” Milat responded with a laugh.

Daniels spends his money on things he enjoys: soda, Gatorade, tickets to hockey and baseball games and sports paraphernalia.

“They’re not necessities; they’re things he wants to have,” said Skyler’s dad, Steve Daniels.

Skyler’s parents admit they never believed a working experience was possible for their son. When they found out he’d be working at Maple Valley Fitness, his mom, Jodi, cried.

“When you’re told your child has special needs you sort of give up a little bit of hope for normalcy,” Jodi said. “It was a chance for him to have a normal life. It was pretty exciting for me.”

Jodi said she can’t help but want to protect Skyler from hurting himself. It’s a sentiment most mothers can appreciate, but it’s even stronger when that child doesn’t quite understand the risks the same way others might. She recognizes that her concerns might be Skyler’s biggest disability.

“He proves me wrong on a regular basis and I thoroughly enjoy that,” she said. “He changes my perspective and my view everyday on life because of the way he chooses to see things.”

Daniels has convinced his mom and sister to join the Maple Valley gym, as well as his former job coach Jessica Lex, who he helped through the membership process himself.

“Skyler is one of the most enthusiastic participants I’ve ever worked with,” Lex said.

Daniels hopes to someday work at the gym full-time. Milat is careful not to put a cap on Daniels’ future roles and said the next step will be working fill-in shifts, possibly without any manager oversight.

As Daniels finished his rounds with the broom, he ended up at the front desk. The phone rang and he looked to his co-worker and former Kentlake classmate Miranda Hallock. She gave Daniels a friendly “go for it” nod toward the phone.

Daniels picked up and greeted the caller. He listened for a bit before calmly placing the customer on hold.

“He wants to cancel his membership,” Daniels told Hallock.

“Did you tell him no, he can’t?” Hallock asked with a grin.

Daniels passed off the phone and grabbed the broom handle; his giggling smile leading the way.