Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Sweet Life -- Former Newspaperman Chips Away at Second Career

After 55 years as this area's most recognizable and celebrated newspaper carrier, Mark Saunders has turned in his trusty delivery bike for a shot at the sweet life, packaging cookies four days a week at Hilltop Industries, the vocational rehabilitation division of The Arc of Livingston-Wyoming.

"I like it," says Mr. Saunders, who celebrated his 72nd birthday in August, about his late-in-life job change. "The people are good, and so is the money."

Hilltop Industries provides gainful employment to 350 community members with developmental disabilities each year, through contract labor that meets a variety of customer needs, from packaging and assembly to printing. On any given day, Mr. Saunders is among approximately three dozen Hilltop workers who package cookies for Original Gourmet Food Company, one of Hilltop's largest customers. In 2010, Hilltop packaged well over 1.5 million cookies for the Salem, NH-based confectionery giant.

Chocolate chip and other cookies arrive at Hilltop individually wrapped. Mr. Saunders and his co-workers prepare them for in-store display by placing each cookie into a metal tin with a decorative seasonal design for Christmas, Halloween, Valentine's Day, or Easter.

"Christmas is my favorite," Mr. Saunders admits. The tins are then shrink-wrapped, and shipped nationwide for display at retail stores. Mr. Saunders estimates that he prepares about 195 cookie tins in an average 6-hour workday.

Mr. Saunders works at Hilltop's Mount Morris, NY workshop, in a clean-room environment that is mandated as part of Hilltop's SQF 2000 – Level 3 Certification by the Safe Quality Food Institute (SQFI). Hilltop recently achieved the elite certification for secondary packaging of food; it will allow Hilltop to carry out work for Target Corporation, as an approved supplier. Internationally recognized as the most stringent and highest level of certification, it also paves the way for Hilltop to gain certified supplier status from other retailers that operate under an SQF mandate, such as Wal-Mart.

Mr. Saunders has led anything but a cookie-cutter life. But those who know him are quick to point out that sweetness is his specialty, which makes him a perfect fit for his new vocation.

"He is great for the job because he gets along well with everyone, and because he is used to following a daily routine from his years of newspaper delivery," says Hilltop Case Manager Lisa Beals, who has known Mr. Saunders since she was a child.

Mr. Saunders developed a cognitive disability after contracting the mumps at a young age. He received formal schooling until age 7, when he was excluded from public schools after repeating kindergarten twice. At age 15, he began delivering newspapers, first for the Times Union and later for the Batavia Daily News. For five consecutive decades, Mr. Saunders carried papers to customers throughout his hometown of Perry, NY in the baskets of his trusty bike, NellyBelle, which he named for the jeep driven by cowboy actor Roy Rogers' sidekick Pat Brady.

In an online discussion that spans three pages, members of the Facebook group "I Grew Up in Perry-dise" recall Mr. Saunders' unique brand of customer service with fondness.

"He knew everyone and everyone knew him," one poster comments. "As kids, I don't think we appreciated the special warmth he brought to the community."

Another notes, "I remember he never delivered our daily newspaper without stopping and chatting and saying hello. My parents had us pay him; he would stand next to his bike, make out the receipt and tell you all about his day. What a wonderful heart he had, just to want to simply enjoy the company of the people in his community."

Struggling with arthritis, Mr. Saunders retired from the newspaper business on May 29th, 2010. That same year, he connected with The Arc, shortly after an illness forced his mother to move from their family home to East Side Nursing Home in nearby Warsaw. Mr. Saunders now visits her there weekly.

Since June of 2010, Mr. Saunders has lived with five other residents at the Hope IRA, an Arc-operated residence located in Retsof, NY. An IRA, which stands for Individualized Residential Alternative, is a specialized group home designed to serve individuals who are able to live on their own with the aid and support of trained staff. The Hope IRA, which is named for Arc of Livingston-Wyoming founder Mary Hope Derby, is one of 14 community IRAs operated by The Arc.

When he's not working, Mr. Saunders enjoys making crafts, playing golf, and spending time with his nieces and nephews. He is an honorary member of the Perry Fire Department, and attends Perry Baptist Church.

He's also not one to leave his passion for the sweet life at the office.

"I'm a cook, too," Mr. Saunders says, with his trademark smile. "I just made some really good homemade cookies."

For additional information about Hilltop Industries, contact Sales and Marketing Manager Rebecca Crocker at (585) 658-3311 ext. 201.

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