SALT LAKE CITY — Whenever a University of Utah athlete takes the field, chances are Ethan Sandbeck had a hand in making his or her uniform look sharp.
Sandbeck works full time in the university's athletic department equipment room. His duties include laundering uniforms and towels but also helping to catalog dozens of pallets of clothing and equipment that arrive in advance of each year's athletic season.
Sandbeck, 21, was placed in an internship in the department in April through Pioneer Adult Rehabilitation Center's Pathways to Careers program.
PARC has served people with disabilities for more than 30 years, starting with a staff of three, 12 clients and an annual budget of $25,000. Its annual budget now exceeds $8 million, according to its website.
The employment program matches available jobs with the skills, interests and abilities of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. More than 700 Utahns received services from the program in the 2012 fiscal year, which included helping adults with disabilities obtain, maintain and advance in competitive employment.
Tuesday morning, Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, and Rep. Becky Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, shadowed Sandbeck on the job in observance of National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Sandbeck, who has Down syndrome, was hired full time in July.
Megan Freshour, director of Olympic equipment operations, said Sandbeck is "a full part of our team."
"I've learned a lot about passion from him. He's loves to come to work every day," Freshour said.
"Even if he's folding towels, he's got a smile on his face. He doesn't let anything stop him from doing whatever needs to be done," she said.
It's taken awhile for Sandbeck's co-workers to help him break out of his shell. As the department employees waited for the start of Tuesday's visit, he and fellow employee Emily Harrington, a human development and family studies major who works part time in the equipment room, conducted a dance-off.
Sandbeck has a "special relationship" with Harrington, Freshour said.
"Seriously, the first day it just clicked. I think it's him who makes it so easy," said Harrington, who started volunteering with people with disabilities while a student at Wasatch High School in Heber City.
"He teaches me a lot about positivity," she said. "He's probably the kindest person I've ever known. He has the kindest heart. He makes me realize what a special world this is."
But he also has a competitive streak, schooling Weiler on the finer points of folding towels.
"I'm impressed with what you're doing with your life and your career," the senator said.
Weiler said he especially admires that Sandbeck has moved from Social Security income to earning a paycheck at the U. He also rides public transportation to work from his home in North Salt Lake.
"It's got to give him a lot of self-respect and pride working here," Weiler said.
Sandbeck has an obvious passion for University of Utah athletics, decked out in red from head to toe. He has season tickets to football.
"Got any BYU stuff at home?" Weiler asked.
"No!" Sandbeck replied.
Football is Sandbeck's favorite sport, he said. Last week's loss to the University of Arizona was "not good," but he's optimistic the Utes will bounce back the remainder of the season.
"Think the Utes will win next week?" Weiler probed.
"I hope so," Sandbeck said.