By Linda Dahlstrom and Bonnie Rochman / Starbucks Newsroom
Video by Jessey Dearing
It’s exactly the kind of day Courtney Block likes best. She’s just finished a shift at work, in a few hours she’ll be meeting friends for dinner and right now, on this recent Wednesday evening in Seattle, the sun is shining, the temperature isn’t too hot or cold – and she’s outside playing bocce ball with friends.
With intense concentration, she grips the ball in her hand, swings her arm back and tosses it, watching it land close to the target.
Behind her, two men are moving a large soccer goal and it flips, landing with a loud crash. Everyone flinches and then freezes in place, except Block.
She hadn’t heard it. Block is deaf due to a rare condition called pontine tegmental cap dysplasia. She was born with neurological problems, deafness, seizures and progressive vision loss. Less than 50 people in the world are known to have the disorder which causes both physical and cognitive issues, said her father, Ken Block.
At 37, she may also be the oldest known person with it. A 2011 study in the Orphanet Journal of Rare Diseases notes that only 19 patients had been reported at that point and, at that time, only one had reached the age of adolescence.
But on this day, Block, who also has partial vision, isn’t thinking of any of that. She has a game to play.
An assistant is at her side to help steady her. Her roommate and assistant bocce ball coach stands next to the small white marker ball to make it easier to see where to aim. But the pure focus, determination and competitive spirit is all hers.
“I feel so great when I’m playing,” she said.
Next week, Block will compete in the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games, expected to draw more than 4,000 athletes from across the United States to participate in the Seattle games July 1-6.
Block, who has worked at Starbucks for 14 years, is one of three Starbucks partners who will be participating in the games, along with Katie Fried, who be competing in swimming, and Justin Hunsinger, who will be playing soccer.
Block started playing bocce ball about a year ago, but also has participated in Special Olympics at the state level doing track and field. She enjoys the experience of the games, but she also plays to win.
“When she practiced she’d keep an eye on the competition and she’d speed up to win,” said her father of her track races, which she’d run with a walker. “It’s in her DNA. I tell our friends she’s the best athlete in the family.”
When she was born, he and his wife, Jan, had about six hours when they thought their firstborn child was healthy. But then, when the medical staff realized she didn’t have the ability to suck, they began to suspect a larger problem. Doctors believed for years she’d had a stroke in utero, Ken Block said. It was only in recent years that her diagnosis was revised to the rare condition.
Those early years were uncertain, he said. She needed a lot of medical support and monitoring. She stopped breathing several times and “had to fight to live,” Ken Block said. But that determination she shows on the bocce ball court has been with her from the start, he added. “She’s always liked a challenge. She always has a sparkle in her eye and a drive.”
Less than 20 percent of people with a disability are employed, according to a 2018 report from the Bureau of Labor statistics. One of the things Block says she’s most proud of is her job at Starbucks. Three days a week, accompanied by a job coach from the non-profit Mainstay, she stocks tea and refills the condiment station, measures food to be prepared and more. “I help where it’s needed,” she said.
She also teaches her Starbucks partners to sign words like “coffee,” “tea,” “thank you” – and, when they are ready, more complex things like “Are you thirsty for coffee or tea?”
She’s a bright and beloved presence among both customers and store partners, said Jack Lamanna, her store manager. “On days she’s not here, we feel it,” he said. Block teaches him the sign for a new word every shift.
She feels so connected to Starbucks that she comes in even when she’s off, she said. “Sometimes I come in with a friend to get a drink and something to eat and play a game or just watch all the action. Nothing makes me happier.”
Those relationships are critical to Block, who said the hardest thing in her life is when caregivers or people who have become her friends move away. At parties, she always makes sure that people at a gathering have someone to talk with, her dad said. Several times he’s thought he was introducing her to people who it turned out she already knew – often because they are customers at Starbucks.
In her spare time, she loves going to the library to check out DVDs to watch at her condo, where she lives with a roommate, or to the park where she likes to sit on the swings or go down the slide. She also does Pilates and weight training twice a week. Her dad marvels at how constantly active she is. And, of course, she has her passion for bocce ball, which will be on display next week for the world to see.
“I have my share of accomplishments that I am proud of,” she said.
Katie Fried, swimmer
Katie Fried learned to swim at age 4. She’s mastered freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly and will be competing in all four in Seattle. It’s in the water, gliding through the pool, that Fried feels free.
Fried, 28, has a learning disability that makes comprehension difficult, likely the result of oxygen deprivation at birth. Reading, writing and math are challenging, but when it comes to sports, Fried excels.
She works at Starbucks’ roasting plant in Carson City, Nev., packing pallets of coffee to be shipped to stores. Her team consists of abled and disabled people, which Fried finds interesting. “I love meeting new people,” she said.
A four-year partner, Fried worked part-time until last year when she switched to full-time. When she started, she was accompanied by a job coach who taught her how to navigate the building, how to use the time clock and how to properly pack boxes, but she no longer needs that level of support.
Frugal by nature, Fried saved enough money from her job to pay cash for a Toyota RAV-4, a small SUV which she drives to and from work. It took her 10 years to get her license, but she didn’t give up and persevered until she passed the test. “Her life has changed 100 percent since she got the job at Starbucks,” said her mother, Patricia Fried. “I can’t tell you what a different person she is. She is so good with her money. She saves every bit of it.”
Beyond the athletic outlet, Special Olympics has given Fried an opportunity to make friends. “We’ve tried to let her excel at sports where she’s really good because it builds up her confidence,” said her mother. “It’s difficult for her to make friends. She didn’t have a whole lot of social life. Special Olympics has been wonderful because she’s been able to make friends.”
Justin Hunsinger, soccer player
Justin Hunsinger plays four sports — basketball, soccer, softball and golf — but will be competing only in soccer in Seattle. “Basically, I was a sportsman since I was born,” said Hunsinger, who is 26.
He began training to be a customer service barista in October at his store in Gaithersburg, Md. He serves customers, sweeps, cleans the doors, washes dishes and cleans the bathroom hourly. “It’s a lot of fun working at Starbucks,” said Hunsinger, who has intellectual disabilities and attention deficit disorder. “My co-workers are very supportive and fun to talk to. If I make a mistake, they say don’t worry about it.
As a person with disabilities, Hunsinger feels he’s a role model. “If I can maintain this job, more people with disabilities will get hired. It changed my life when I got hired by Starbucks. It made me more financially stable and gave me a fun group of people to work with.”
It also has helped Hunsinger become more independent, which has prompted him to start thinking about moving out of his parents’ house into a place of his own that he would share with other people with disabilities. He and his best friend from Special Olympics plan to look for a place to live together.
Sports keep Hunsinger busy after work. His softball team recently won a state championship; Hunsinger plays third base but he can also pitch.
On the soccer field, he typically plays left forward.
In preparation for the games, Hunsinger has been working out almost every day, mostly cardio — typically running. “My soccer team and I are working as hard as we’ve ever worked to make sure we are on top of our game for Seattle,” he said.
He’s feeling good about their prospects. He’s also feeling whole for the first time about his disability, thanks to help from mindfulness training and a trained therapist. “I recently found peace with my disability,” he said. “It’s taken a long time for that to happen.”