ST. PAUL, Minn. — Any Lyft driver lucky enough to take Reagan Anderson to or from his dishwasher job at Famous Dave’s can expect a great conversation.

Did you know, for example, that Bulgaria has overtaken France as the world leader in lavender oil production?

“The capital is Sofia,” said Anderson, 20, of Forest Lake. “They grow more hectares of lavender — they measure their fields in hectares — than anywhere else in the world. They are leading producers. They’re kind of pushing France to the side.”

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Anderson landed his restaurant job in August after responding to a Facebook ad. He works two or three shifts a week.

Anderson, who has a traumatic brain injury and doesn’t drive, loves the job, but he worries about getting to and from the restaurant in Forest Lake, which is about five miles from home.

The nonprofit Rise, which supports people with disabilities and other barriers to employment, pays for rides through Lyft, the app-based ride-sharing service, then gets reimbursed through their clients’ Medicaid waivers. But finding Lyft drivers willing to make the trip to Forest Lake, in northern Washington County, can be difficult.

Anderson’s job coach, Rise program manager Andrew Owzarek, requests a Lyft driver up to a month in advance and schedules them to arrive as much as an hour early. Still, drivers sometimes cancel at the last minute, leaving Owzarek scrambling to find a replacement.

As he waited for a ride last week, Anderson said he doesn’t understand why there aren’t more Lyft drivers in the northern suburbs.

“It’s not like we’re that far from the Twin Cities,” he said. “Sometimes they’ll get to White Bear Lake and then turn around. I guarantee you there’s, like, tons of Lyfts. I don’t see how I can’t get a ride.”

‘Massive Bills’

Reliable transportation is one of the most formidable barriers clients face, said Dan Meyers, Rise’s director of vocational evaluation and transitional services. He said the situation is especially dire in Forest Lake, home to about 20,000 people.

“Lyft is less reliable in communities like Forest Lake due to their smaller populations, and ride requests are sometimes answered from communities farther away, like Roseville or St. Paul,” Meyers said. “That can result in massive bills for trips that are sometimes only one or two miles. We’ve had bills upward of $100.”

Rise officials said they chose Lyft in September 2019 because of the company’s strong customer service, robust background checks for drivers and interest in working with nonprofit organizations. They hope to recruit more Lyft drivers in the Forest Lake area to help people like Anderson get to work.

Drivers can set their own schedules and work directly with Rise “to ensure drivers are matched to Rise people,” Meyers said.

They can choose to drive a specific Rise client for just one route or drive several people to and from work throughout the week. They also have the option of driving for the general public.

28 Surgeries

Anderson, a student in the Forest Lake Area School District’s S.T.E.P. program, a school-to-work transition program for high school students who have physical or intellectual disabilities, loves meeting his Lyft drivers. He’s had drivers from Somalia, Ethiopia and Thailand, he said.

“I’m very interested in other cultures,” he said. “I have a teacher who studied in Bulgaria — that’s what got me interested in other countries. My brother-in-law is from Brazil.”

Anderson was born with bleeding in the brain and then developed hydrocephalus, the buildup of fluid in the brain.

“He damn near died at birth,” his father, Mike Anderson, said. “It turned out he had meningitis, but that wasn’t diagnosed until he was 3 weeks old. He was in the hospital for his first seven months.”

Reagan Anderson has undergone 28 brain surgeries, the latest in 2017, and has spent almost three years in the hospital, his father said.

He loves drawing, competing in track in the Special Olympics, dancing to indie-folk music in his bedroom and hanging out with his girlfriend. He does not like cleaning his room.

“It’s a mess,” he said during a tour last week. “All my clothes end up in a big pile.”

But he takes special care of his Famous Dave’s uniform, which hangs neatly in his closet.

‘He Never Complains’

Anderson’s work requires scrubbing greasy racks with steel wool, loading and unloading the commercial dishwasher, and stacking clean dishes on shelves. Before he takes any dishes out of the dishwasher, he must wash his hands with soap and water for 30 seconds — just enough time for him to sing “Happy Birthday” quietly in his head, he said.

“I do the sheet trays first and then the silverware,” he said. “After I do all those things, then everything else is smooth going from there. They say it doesn’t have to be 100 percent, but I hold myself to really high standards.”

When co-workers like Theresa Vodinelich ask him how he’s doing, Anderson smiles and says “super-awesome.”

He said he likes all of his co-workers at the restaurant and doesn’t have a favorite. “If you picked just one, there could be a conflict,” he said.

“He’s very, very reliable,” said Jeff Gray, the restaurant’s general manager. “Being a dishwasher isn’t the most glamorous job in the world, but he takes it in stride. He just does his job. Sometimes he will come into a big pile — like today, we’ve been very busy, and we don’t have a dishwasher on in the morning — and he just gets right to it. He never complains.”

Anderson saves his wages in a special college fund. He plans to apply for the nursing assistant/home health aide certificate program at St. Paul College, which graduated some of his favorite nurses.

Next year, he hopes to intern at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul through Project SEARCH, a school-to-work transition program for high schoolers with disabilities.

“I love to work with people in need,” he said. “I’ve had experience in hospitals, and I like helping people who aren’t feeling well.”

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