WARNER ROBINS — In 2007, after being unemployed for more than three years, Tommie Giddens finally landed an interview with Lawrence Durham, then-president of the Epilepsy Association of Georgia.
Giddens, 42, was diagnosed with epilepsy as a young child. He had difficulty finding a job with his condition, applying for everything from radio announcer to security guard at Perdue Farms processing plant near Perry. The longer the job search continued, the more frustrated and depressed he became.
“Do you really think I want to sit and watch TV all day? I want to work,” he said.
During the interview, Giddens said, Durham, who died in November, was strict. Giddens was expected to be on time to work every day and be a “hard, dependable worker.”
Afterward, the two shook hands, and Durham welcomed Giddens to the team.
“Whenever no one else would hire me, this place gave me the chance,” said Giddens, who now serves as the general manager of Pass the Buck Dollar Store on Booker Street.
Founded in 1964 by Howard Phillips, the Epilepsy Association of Georgia is a nonprofit organization that employs people with epilepsy, a medical condition that causes seizures. The organization operates Pass the Buck Dollar Store with three employees and one volunteer.
Phillips sought donations for the group when it was founded, and later, he managed to secure government contracts with Robins Air Force Base, so people with epilepsy could be put to work, said Susan Banks, 43, president of the Epilepsy Association of Georgia.
The organization also is registered with NISH, which provides job opportunities for people with disabilities to perform tasks for government contracts.
Later, the association opened EAG Variety Store and Pass the Buck. By 2008, EAG Variety Store shut its doors, and Pass the Buck is now the organization’s only source of income. Eventually, the group hopes to add a clothing donation center.
Both Giddens and Banks said they want to be able to hire more employees in the future.
“Instead of staying at home, people with epilepsy regulated with medication can go work,” Banks said.
Before working at the Epilepsy Association of Georgia, Banks had a job at a Warner Robins bakery when she was about 19 or 20. She had to leave that job under doctor’s orders not to work near hot ovens, she said. Now, Banks has been working at the Epilepsy Association of Georgia for 22 years.
“I started at the bottom and worked my way up,” she said.
Through the years, employees have had to deal with public misconceptions about what epilepsy is.
“Many times I didn’t even want to mention I have epilepsy,” Banks said. “They treat you different. I’ve learned to overcome that.”
Banks and others hope the presence of their organization will help people understand the disorder better.
“It’s getting the word out and having people understand it more,” she said.
Patricia Million, 28, an employee at Pass the Buck, said the store feels like home for her.
“I love it. I really do,” Million said. “It feels like a family. It feels like you’re understood.”
Million said there should be more organizations that work to help people with disabilities.
“Let them feel what everyone else feels when they work or get a diploma — a sense of accomplishment,” she said.
For Million, finding the job at Pass the Buck five months ago is part of an upward climb in her life after years of hardship. Million first suffered epileptic seizures about 10 years ago, after experiencing a head injury caused by an abusive ex-husband. Eventually, she moved out with her two small children to live with family and start her life over.
Today, she is remarried and has four children. The family recently bought a home. Million, who dropped out of high school, said they chose to live in Houston County, so her children can get a good education.
“I’m headed toward something better,” she said. “This place is a dream to me.”
Her job allows her to work for a good cause and help people who have been in her shoes.
“I work at Pass the Buck. I’m proud of it,” she said. “I’m not just a cashier or a stocker. I’m really making a difference.”
Most of all, she is thankful for the chance to provide for herself and her family.
“After this, everything has been opening up,” Million said. “I’m putting food on the table. I’m paying bills. I’m very grateful.”
To contact Andrea Castillo, call 256-9751.