SANDUSKY - At 19, Stella Consevage seemed to have everything going for her.
The Sandusky High School graduate was enrolled at Terra Technical College in Fremont, commuting from her parents' home in a new Pontiac Sunbird they bought for her.
But as she headed back to Sandusky after classes on April 14, 1980, Ms. Consevage was involved in a head-on collision that left her fighting for her life.
She was taken to Medical College of Ohio Hospitals in Toledo with severe brain injuries and a disfigured right hand. She remained in a coma for several months and, when she finally regained consciousness, she was unable to speak or stand on her own.
"They said she'd never walk or talk again," said Donna Palazzo, a job coach who works with Ms. Consevage at Double S Industries in Sandusky. "She proved them wrong."
As she nears the 25th anniversary of the accident that changed her life, Ms. Consevage has learned to walk again with a stiff gait and has regained some speech. With her right hand rendered useless by the crash, she taught herself to write with her left hand.
After years of rehabilitation, she lives in her own apartment and operates a snack shop at Double S, a factory that employs her and about 100 other clients of the Erie County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities.
With help from Ms. Palazzo, Ms. Consevage stocks the little room in the Sandusky facility with bags of chips, candy bars, cans of pop, fresh fruit, and doughnuts packaged separately in zipper-lock plastic bags.
From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays, she handles the cash register, sitting behind a small desk as she rings up purchases and counts out change.
As her co-workers walk into the store, Ms. Consevage greets them with a toothy, dimpled smile.
Cari Miller walked up to the counter yesterday with a package of Reese's peanut butter cups and handed Ms. Consevage a dollar bill.
Ms. Consevage took the money with her left hand, placed it in the register till, and handed Ms. Miller a quarter.
"There you are," she said.
"Thanks, Stella," Ms. Miller replied, taking her change.
"I love my shop," Ms. Consevage said with a grin. "I'm the boss."
Ms. Palazzo said Ms. Consevage is an example of how people with mental disabilities can learn new skills, gain confidence, and enjoy a measure of independence.
Employees at Double S Industries, a nonprofit enterprise, prepare mailings, package products, and perform other jobs. MRDD clients also work for outside employers through contracts with the Erie County board.
Ms. Consevage, for instance, worked at a Chi Chi's restaurant when she became an MRDD client in the early 1990s, helping prepare for the day's customers each morning before the eatery opened. Later, she worked at a Glidden paint plant in Huron, Ohio, stripping old labels from cans and attaching new ones, Ms. Palazzo said.
MRDD officials chose her over eight other applicants when they decided to open the snack shop last summer. While Ms. Consevage has some short-term memory loss, she has no trouble figuring purchases and making change, Ms. Palazzo said.
"I know my money," Ms. Consevage said.
"That's why this was such a good fit," Ms. Palazzo said. "She has a strong sense of justice, and yet would never take less than she's supposed to."
It's been good for Ms. Consevage, she added. "When she got this opportunity, she got more choices and the ability to help people."
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