James O’Neal isn’t one to act sheepish about his looks.
He has bulbous tumors on his face due to a genetic disorder known as neurofibromatosis.
But that didn’t stop the 46-year-old Woodinville man from getting right to the point during a job interview at Kirkland’s Kingsgate Safeway. He made clear his intention to become a supervisor one day.
It’s the kind of job that requires face time with employees and customers, not to mention an even-keeled temperament.
O’Neal is familiar with all of that by now.
He’s been working at Safeway for seven years – never once hidden from sight in the rear stocking rooms, or the loading dock, or some tucked-away cranny of the meat department. His duties have always been customer-service oriented. He started as a bagger, and has since worked his way to cashier.
“He’s a great employee,” said Safeway spokeswoman Cherie Myers. “He absolutely loves working with customers, and customers love him.”
Safeway regulars have come to know O’Neal as one of the friendliest employees in the store.
“He’s really happy and upbeat,” said customer Katie Knopf of Bothell. “He seems to like being busy and doing a good job.”
O’Neal wears a patch to cover his missing left eye. Children often ask him if he’s a pirate. O’Neal just goes along with it.
“I tell them I’m the good pirate,” he said. “Some of them call me the pirate man.
“This is the way I was born. People usually take me for who I am.”
Knopf decided to do something about O’Neal’s condition. There was just one obstacle: she would have to talk to him about his disorder first.
“I was really nervous about it because it seemed like a really personal thing,” she said. “Then I figured the only way I can make something happen is to find out what it is. He didn’t seem to care at all.”
Knopf learned that O’Neal’s tumors had stopped growing around the age of adulthood. It was too late by then to undergo any more of the yearly surgeries that used to be covered by his father’s insurance.
The costs of treating the tumor aren’t certain at this point, but O’Neal estimated the procedure would cost $25,000, based on figures he recalled from childhood operations.
Knopf took it upon herself to raise the necessary funds from the community. She held a meeting with church friends to come up with a game plan and sent her kids out to round up neighbors.
“Only a few neighbors came, but everyone donated money,” Knopf said. “We weren’t even asking for money yet. That was the first indication that people were really interested in him.”
Knopf eventually sent out fliers to announce a fundraiser on O’Neal’s behalf, and she enlisted one of her friend’s to create a blog (friendsofjamesoneal.blogspot.com) for the cause.
Her efforts helped raise around $80,000 in just over two weeks. Safeway donated the first $10,000, and money started to pour in from as far away as Europe and Australia after news spread by way of the internet and television news reports.
“We’re absolutely astounded and amazed,” Knopf said. “We didn’t expect this to leave Seattle and hit the other side of the mountains, let alone the other side of the earth. Everyone seems like they’re really proud of him for not hiding.”
The Friends of James O’Neal fundraiser has now brought in $100,000. The chief of plastic surgery at the University of Washington Medical Center said O’Neal’s first procedure will probably last 10-12 hours.
Next would come two follow-up operations and two years of waiting before re-evaluation. His supporters will have a better idea of how much treatment will cost after that. They plan to continue raising funds in the event that they don’t already have enough.
Safeway also announced it will collect contributions at its stores throughout four states during the month of July.