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More Than a Job

For Johnathan Ainsworth, a 28-year-old from Lee’s Summit, Missouri, a job means so much more.
It’s a measurement of progress, a validation of excruciating effort in the face of unthinkable odds, and a springboard to a future without ceilings or limitations.

In March 2019, eight months after a 30-foot-fall and the brain injury that nearly ended his life, Johnathan earned a place on the team at an Omaha-area Chick-fil-A. This isn’t what you might think of as traditional therapy.

Workplace simulation at Chick-fil-A taps into John’s professional background—years of leading teams and managing restaurants. And it harnesses his true passion: making others feel welcome in any environment.

Truly, this is more than a rehab opportunity in a volunteer setting. It’s the portal through which John can take the next step of his recovery.

“We’re appreciative to be trusted enough to help John,” said Andy Privitera, Operator of the Chick-fil-A location that serves North Central Omaha.

In February, QLI approached Andy and his leadership team about the possibility of bringing John onto the team for workplace training. John, at that time only two months away from the end of his rehabilitation at QLI, was beginning to stitch together his burgeoning physical and cognitive abilities into the tasks he’d perform in everyday life.

For John, formal therapy was only a stepping-off point. Only so much is possible within the isolated confines of a physical therapy lab or a medical center.

Not wanting handouts or fast passes, John wanted to earn his independence, and to begin rebuilding key elements of his identity.
To do that, especially after the global effects of a traumatic brain injury, he needed real-world practice.

“Our mission is to treat everyone with honor, dignity, and respect,” said Andy. “Our team embraced that with John, and it was clear John cared about those values when interacting with our guests.”

After an introductory interview with John, Chick-fil-A was quick to partner with QLI to be the home of the next step of his rehabilitation. John requested a hospitality role—a front-of-house position in which he could help set the tone for the culture of the restaurant.

To entertain any notion of independence is to reflect on the distance John has traveled at QLI.

In the early stages of recovery even the smallest of challenges were mountains to climb.

Among the many consequences of his injury—effects to his speaking voice, his ability to maintain attention to major tasks, his ability to reason through novel situations—John suffered from extreme dyskinesia, involuntary muscle movements that made simple tasks like walking exceedingly difficult.

“A lot of our programming was initially built to answer the question, ‘How can he keep himself safe?’” said Corey Cundall, John’s occupational therapist. “There was a long way to go before we were able to say, ‘Yeah, let’s get him back to work.’”

John’s first months of therapy focused on intensive training aimed to build strength, build physical and cognitive endurance, and build the forward momentum necessary to launch into the next chapter of his life.

Though John arrived at QLI dependent on a manual wheelchair, by his second month in Omaha John was walking with palpable confidence. First, with a walker, then with a simple gait belt and therapist supervision. Then, eventually, with no help at all.

Couched within the relentless environment and intentional structure of QLI, change happened rapidly. John’s clinicians snapped to respond, combining function-focused therapy strategies with tasks situated in true-to-life situations. By blending simulated activity and real-world activity, John and his therapists took away the uncertainty of unfamiliarity.

New situations were suddenly manageable, new problems suddenly solvable, and new ambitions suddenly achievable.

“He sets realistic goals for being independent, that’s one of his strengths,” said Kyra Marsh, John’s speech therapist at QLI. “He understands how much support he needs with a given task and will go out of his way to ask for specific practice.”

John’s spectacular resurgence isn’t just a glimpse at what it might be to return to regular work—it’s also a window into the ways he’ll be able to enjoy the other fulfilling parts of his life.

“First thing when I get back,” he says about his upcoming return to Lee’s County, “I want to play some pool.”

Of course, pool is a game of control. It’s a game of angles and premeditation and of improvisation, of making the best out of the situation on the table. But to John, someone who has had to wrestle control over constant dyskinetic motion in his arms and legs, the importance of that control reaches so much further.

A ranked billiards league player in his hometown who has played the game for over seven years, John worked with therapists to reconstruct the skills he needed to run the table once again. But getting back to pool is every bit as important socially as it is functionally. It’s a part of John’s identity. “It’s not just the game,” John says. “[The league] is where my friends are. It’s how we all hang out.”

If John’s work simulation at Chick-fil-A has meant anything, it has meant a tremendous spike in his personal confidence. As a volunteer with real responsibility, John is able to see—in concrete terms—his capacity for accomplishment. His job description interweaves the very skills he has spent the last year of his life relearning.

From customer interaction, which pushes him to overcome the doubt and insecurity he feels about the quality of his speaking voice, to physical tasks around the restaurant, which challenge his endurance, his balance, and his in-the-moment reasoning—John transfers all of the lessons from therapy and proves their worth in a real-world environment.

One thing stands evident beyond all else: John is succeeding. The transition is happening. The brain injury that forced its way into John’s life doesn’t have the power to stop it, or him.

“In those moments when he’s finished all of his work,” said Corey Cundall, “he doesn’t just do laps or sit idle. He finds someone and asks, ‘What next?’ He wants to be busy.”

During a shift, as John surveys the restaurant, pushing a waist-high trolley cart furnished with Lysol wipes and a waste receptacle, the little things matter most.

Having an attention to detail means more than wiping down tables—it means adjusting the fresh carnations to better catch the sunlight.

It doesn’t stop at greeting each guest—it includes being a part of their day with genuine, charming conversation. It isn’t defined by the ability to complete all of a day’s tasks in the little time given, but by the care and dedication that ensures everything—to the smallest degree—is perfect.

“We want Chick-fil-A to be the business that cares the most,” said Andy Privitera. “Care. About its team, about its guests, about its community. John is someone who cares. He’s someone with incredible heart. He’s someone who wants to get things right.”

John’s success has been incredible, inspiring, and, in many ways, a defiance of the bleak expectations that seemed all but inevitable following his life-changing fall. But his story thus far is itself only the beginning of a larger goal.

Where Chick-fil-A provided a powerful functional setting in which to hone his physical and cognitive toolset, it is John who must dedicate his focus and energy on the continuing journey toward recovery.

Independence doesn’t arrive at the flip of a switch. Independence comes in gradients. It is a lifelong climb of education, training, and achievement. John isn’t phased by the road ahead. He keeps looking forward, and he steels himself for change—because change is the engine of progress.

“You’ll get through the hard times,” John says. “You will. I know it for a fact. Sometimes, it seems like you won’t or cant. Sometimes you can’t see the way out. But you will.”

Credits:

Written by Carsten Froehlich Photography by Jon Pearson

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