Freia David happily worked the fry station at her local McDonald’s for over three decades, and she was loved by all of her colleagues. She also happens to have Down syndrome. So when this positive soul decided to retire after a lifetime of hard work, it was no surprise that her co-workers threw her an epic party.
Born and raised in Needham, Massachusetts, Freia has spent the past 32 years working at the neighborhood McDonald’s. Yes, Freia would arrive early for her job at the fry station fives days a week, always with a smile and a hug or a high five for her fellow employees.
And, after three decades of manning the fryer during the busy lunch hour rush, Freia is a pro at dishing up perfectly hot, salted fries. But when Freia started working here in 1984, her own mother had doubts about how long this job would last.
That is because Freia has Down syndrome, a chromosomal disorder that affects an estimated 400,000 people in the United States. When babies are born with a full or partial extra copy of chromosome 21, they are affected by the disorder and experience different developmental growth.
Typically, those with Down syndrome have cognitive delays and are often physically smaller in stature, with low muscle tone. People with Down syndrome may also find certain activities more difficult to master, but they are often able to lead active and fulfilling lives, especially when they have a healthy support system in place.
Freia’s mother, Anneliese David, moved to Needham from her native Germany in the early 1960s, when resources for people with developmental disabilities were scarce. In fact, Anneliese was distraught when she first learned of her daughter’s diagnosis. After all, those with disabilities were often institutionalized at the time.
But Anneliese would not let that happen to her daughter. She therefore worked with Freia and helped her grow into a lively young woman who loves old music and Disney movies.
At age three, Freia entered nursery school at the Charles River Center, a Needham-based organization that helps children and adults with disabilities. In fact, Freia still lives at the center, in a group home, and it was thanks to the staff there that McDonald’s took her on as an employee so many years ago.
At first, though, it was only on a trial basis. Still in her her early 20s, Freia had been taking job training workshops at the Center, and the staff there worked hard to get local businesses to consider hiring their students. Remember this was long before the Americans with Disabilities Act, which in 1990 made discrimination on the basis of a disability illegal.
As a worried mother, however, Anneliese was skeptical about having Freia work. But a counselor at the Charles River Center convinced Anneliese to let Freia give it a shot.
Anneliese would not regret her decision. “[The counselor] was right,” Anneliese later said. “And [Freia] loved it.” Though Freia started out cleaning tables and tidying up around the restaurant, she was soon promoted to the French fry station.
Two other participants in the program didn’t make it through the six-month trial period, but Freia thrived at her job. She took to her spot at the Frymaster like she was made for it, and she quickly formed a community of friends made of co-workers and regular customers who came to enjoy a meal at their neighborhood McDonald’s.
In fact, Freia would arrive an hour early to work just to socialize. Yes, her customers love her that much, and many know her by name. Freia would also start every shift by greeting her manager Rony Sandoval with a hug. At the end of her shift, she would ask him if she did a good job or not, and Sandoval always replied with a smile and a thumbs up.
Athough Freia had the weekends off, she always returned to the neighborhood fast-food chain on Saturday to meet with friends. “Freia’s smile, her enthusiasm, and her daily hugs made our restaurant more than just a restaurant,” said Timothy McCoy, the Owner Operator of the Needham McDonald’s location.
So, after 32 years, Freia had served up an estimated one million pounds of fries when it came time for her to retire. Mind you, it wasn’t a decision that came lightly. But Anneliese, who is now 90 years old, saw her daughter exhibiting signs of early dementia, an ailment common among those with Down syndrome in their 50s. Naturally, then, Anneliese worried about Freia being near the hot fryer. Therefore, she told Freia that she wasn’t being fired, but it was time to call it quits.
When they heard the news, the Needham McDonald’s management quickly had a banner hung in front of the restaurant inviting all of Needham to Freia’s retirement party. The outcome was more than Anneliese or McDonald’s could have imagined.
Over 100 people – friends, co-workers, regular customers, family and other developmentally disabled adults – all came to show their support and wish Freia well. “I’m speechless,” said Annelise. “I expected a party, but not a party like this.” Along with free fries for everyone, there were two cakes and a giant balloon sculpture shaped like Minnie Mouse ears.
“It was nice, I’m really happy,” Freia told Boston’s WBZ-TV. “I like all my friends here.” It’s clear that all of Freia’s friends at McDonald’s love and appreciate her as well. Her 32 years of hard work were recognized with a certificate from the state House of Representatives and an array of thoughtful gifts.
Before leaving the party, Freia popped behind the Frymaster for one last shift at the fryer. “Can I have a small fries, please?” called out Sandoval. “Medium fries, please?” said somebody else.
Like the seasoned expert she is, Freia smoothly served up her last few orders of fries. But her retirement is not the end of her time at this McDonald’s. No, Sandoval promised Freia and her mother free fries for life, and the manager knows Freia will be back soon to socialize. “Bye, sweetie,” he said when she left the party. “See you Saturday.”