Future Reflections                                                                                                      Fall 2001

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Family-Owned Restaurant Employs Blind Teen

by Bart Ripp

Reprinted from The News Tribune, Tacoma, Washington, Sunday, July 15, 2001 (Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News).

Jun. 22–When Chris Bickert turned 16 recently, he  achieved his loftiest goal. He got a job at Frank’s Family Drive-In. He rides a Pierce Transit bus to work. He takes orders, makes drinks, slices cheese, washes dishes, cleans tables and takes out trash at Frank’s, 4008 S. 12th St., Tacoma.

At Frank’s, and in the restaurant business, an employee like Bickert exceeds rarity. Chris Bickert is totally blind. He doesn’t know black. He never has seen colors.

“Understanding that this is a very bright young man, to walk into a restaurant, present himself, get a job – and then succeed – is highly unusual,” said Alan Garrels, child and family services consultant for the state Department of Services for the Blind. “It’s not very common to have blind people (working) in the front of a restaurant.”

Only a few other Puget Sound restaurants employ blind workers, Garrels said. They include Jerome’s Place at the County-City Building in Tacoma, Delcambre’s Ragin’ Cajun in Seattle’s Pike Place Market and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cafeteria at Sand Point in Seattle.

Christopher Charles Bickert was born with a congenital condition called persistent hyperplastic primary vitreous. He was the 11th person in the United States diagnosed with this condition in both eyes, said his mother, Betsy Bickert.

She has a 9-year-old son, Sean Adix, who also suffers from the condition. So far as she knows, they are the only two siblings both affected in both eyes by this condition. And Sean is developmentally disabled.

“Chris and Sean are the only siblings in ophthalmologic history with this condition,” she said. “It’s congenital and carried silently in my family. If I had a daughter, she would have vision. But there is a chance her male children would be born blind.”

Betsy wants to write a children’s book about a kid who’s scared of the dark. That makes Chris laugh. “I’m in the dark all the time and I’m not scared,” he said.

Chris Roney, one of 700 visually impaired residents in Pierce County, has taught visually impaired students in Tacoma Public Schools for 16 years. Roney has taught Chris Bickert 13 years, since he was enrolled in a preschool part of TPS’ Sensory Impaired Program.

“Chris interacts well with people, especially adults,” Roney said. “He has dealt one-on-one with adults since he was young.

“Chris is enthusiastic. He is extremely confident and articulate. He works hard in school and values what he learns and he enjoys performing. He loves it.”

Bickert plays classical piano. He has acted in school plays. He loves going places. One fond memory involves riding in a 1996 Cadillac, owned by his grandmother, Juanell Stedman, in Grand Coulee, Douglas County. A buddy named Sam Madsen took Chris for a long ride in the Cadillac on a hot, sunny day.

“We drove almost to Wenatchee,” Chris said. “There weren’t any adults around. I just went for a ride. I can’t drive, but I can be driven. That was something I love to remember.”

Three years ago, Chris became a teenager. He pestered his mother and stepfather, a Boeing manager named Ed Robinson, with questions about what teenagers do. One answer was that teens eat burgers and drink milkshakes at drive-ins.

“I remember the first day Chris came in,” said Dale Frank, grill cook and former owner of Frank’s Family Drive-In. His daughter, Marti Fote, became Frank’s owner in January.

David Maywalt, Chris’ orientation and mobility instructor, was showing Chris how to cross streets. Chris asked if he could get a burger and Coke. Later visits came with Mary Ann Frigeri, who was Chris’ Spanish teacher at McIlvaigh Middle School.

Independent drive-ins like Frank’s, with hand-cut french fries, and fresh fruit milk shakes, have become rare in a fast-food industry dominated by franchises. The drive-in opened in 1968 as Carl’s, became Trop’s, then was acquired by Dale Frank five years ago.

“When Chris told me he would like to work here when he turned 16, I said, ‘Yeah, sure,’ and never thought he was serious,” Frank said.

In April, Chris came to Frank’s to order a triple cheeseburger, large fries and a large Dr. Pepper, announce he was 16 and wanted to apply for a job.

“I wasn’t quite sure about what Chris could do,” Fote said. “ But he’s doing really good. He loves to do the prep (food preparation). He loves to make drinks. “He loves all of us. The customers ask if he’s fully blind. Everybody is amazed.”

Chris earns $6.75 an hour. He types orders on an electric typewriter. He hands the typed card to a grill cook. He uses a gadget called a bill identifier for telling the denomination of currency. He can identify coins. Garrels hopes to use $1,800 in funds from the department for the blind for a Towa Talking Cash Register, to be loaned to Frank’s while Chris is employed.

Chris has bigger plans. He hopes to attend Washington, Central Washington, Washington State, Pacific Lutheran or the University of Puget Sound, earn degrees in education and teach seventh-grade English.

“People say seventh-graders are the worst students,” Chris said. “I want to show that they aren’t.”

Chris wants to live in a condominium without a lawn. He wants to take car rides all over Washington, maybe even to Wenatchee. He wants to play piano for people, act in plays, and be a guy who does his job.

“Just because you’re blind,” Chris said, “doesn’t mean you don’t have a vision. I want to be a normal person in the world. I’m independent as I can be. I’m working. I’m somebody.”

Chris Bickert reads Shakespeare and science fiction in Braille. He listens to Elvis, Garth Brooks, and Faith Hill. He enjoys old radio programs such as “Boston Blackie” and “The Green Hornet.”

“In my mind, I’m this regular person, even if I can’t see,” Chris said. “I’ll go out for a burger, fries, and a Coke, and I want it to be at Frank’s. I’ll never quit going there. When I head someplace, I’m thinking that I’m always going to Frank’s.”

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