After Marla Kleinheinz said goodbye to friends and co-workers on Friday, she told them where she was headed amid a flurry of enthusiastic arm pumps and chants of "woo woo" in the seating area of the Albertsons in Lake Grove.
Service Operations Manager Janet Dean then presented her with a parting gift: a container full of Diet Cokes.
"Marla has a drinking problem," Dean joked, acknowledging Marla's appreciation for the beverage.
But for Marla, the going-away party meant more than free soft drinks. It meant saying goodbye to co-workers, embarking on a life transition and leaving a community that embraced her.
"I'm happy," she said.
Albertsons hosted the party for Marla, a Lake Oswego resident with Down syndrome who has worked at the store for 23 years and become a beloved member of the community.
"All the customers know her," Dean said. "We're going to miss her. She's a part of the community. She went to school here in this neighborhood, worked here in this neighborhood. She's just very well known here."
Marla, 45, graduated from Lake Oswego High in 1993 and attended Portland Community College's culinary arts program. Afterward, her mother, Jane Kleinheinz, expected her to work at a restaurant cleaning tables and dishes.
"This worked a lot better, because she was with people all the time," Jane said.
In 1996, Jane visited the Lake Grove Albertsons and spoke with then-store manager John Janko, asking if he would hire an individual with Down syndrome. Janko told the Kleinheinzes to fill out an application.
One week later, Marla had a new job.
"I've always been an (advocate) for kids with special needs. I went to school with them, knew a bunch of them. They were great people," Janko said. "I wanted to give her a break."
Janko, who retired more than 10 years ago, has many fond memories of Marla. He recalls calling Marla to tell her that he was going to pick her up from home so she wouldn't have to take the bus to work, and then watching the bus fly away with Marla in it.
"She would say, 'OK, I won't get on the bus.' But I go to pick her up and as I'm looking at the bus, she's waving at me out the window," Janko said.
Both "Seinfeld" fans, Marla and Janko often joked about the quintessential interaction between the characters Jerry and Newman.
"One day, she came up to me and she said, 'Hello Newman.' I said, 'Hello Jerry,'" Janko says. "Everytime I see her, she does that now."
Marla's responsibilities included mopping floors, bagging groceries, bringing groceries to cars, cleaning bathrooms and other store tasks. She worked from noon-4 p.m., five days a week.
"Marla walks through the door and it's always 'Hi,' and it's a hug and then she gets her two Diet Cokes. She has a routine," Dean said. "She sweeps the floor and when she's walking, she says hi to everybody. At lunch, she will have her Diet Coke. And she'll have a Diet Coke on her way home."
Interacting with customers was a key part of Marla's work day, Dean says.
"She has a big smile when she sees somebody she knows," she said. "They'll walk up to her and give her a hug."
Jane says her daughter rarely if ever took a day off in 23 years.
"If I wanted to take her to the beach or take her to Florida, she'd say. 'Oh no, I have to work,'" Jane said.
"The job gave her a sense of purpose," added Marla's sister, Kathy Elliott.
Though she is leaving the Lake Grove Albertsons, Marla isn't leaving the company. She'll soon begin work at an Albertsons in Beaverton, which is located near her new home at the Edwards Center, a group home for individuals with developmental disabilities. Marla previously commuted from a living facility in Tigard to Lake Oswego on the bus.
"The whole reason for the move is she has to take (the bus) from her home and it would sometimes take 2.5 hours. We asked if Albertsons had a need in that area. Her store is going to be 10 minutes away," Elliott said.
"It's going to be a better situation, but it's hard (for Marla) moving away from all this," her mother said.
Marla says she will miss her co-workers, enjoyed working with Dean and even didn't mind cleaning bathrooms at the store. But she is excited for her transition to the new store.
Though he couldn't make it to the party, Janko planned to visit Marla at her new job. Like many in the community, he said he cherished his time with Marla.
"She was just a terrific employee. Everyone loved her," Janko said. "She always had a smile on her face, she never had a bad day. She had a great sense of humor, too."
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