BEVERLY — About a dozen people gathered outside Prides Deli & Pizzeria around 11 a.m. on Wednesday, and it wasn't the early lunch crowd.

Employees and clients of the nonprofit organization Bridgewell surprised Prides Deli co-owner Victoria Baker with its fifth annual Champion Award.

Baker was honored for participating in the Peabody-based agency's Employee Supports Program, which relies on local business owners to employ people with developmental disabilities, physical limitations, and medical or behavioral challenges.

Bearing purple and yellow balloons, the group greeted a surprised, teary-eyed Baker outside the deli on Hale Street in Beverly Farms.

"You are really awesome and I really do love you and thank you so much," said Erin O'Donnell, a 26-year-old Lynn resident and Bridgewell client who works at Prides Deli.

The deli has been employing about a dozen Bridgewell clients for the last six months. Two people at a time, under the supervision of a Bridgewell staffer, work at the deli five days a week from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Baker said the employees clean tables, wash windows, fold boxes, prepare dressings, water the flowers, and make deliveries. "Everything I do, except take orders," she said.

"They've just been a blessing," said a teary-eyed Baker, who owns Prides Deli with her fiance, Michael Magner. "They're so hard-working and passionate. Even if it's a simple job, they execute it to the fullest extent. It's hard to get reliable people in this business, and they're reliable. They make the business better, they really do."

Bridgewell interim CEO Chris Tuttle said the unemployment rate among the population served by Bridgewell is 80 percent, so businesses that take a chance on hiring them are providing a valuable opportunity.

"The fact that you help them develop life skills and things that will carry them well past when they're done with us is remarkable," Tuttle told Baker.

Baker said she hopes the example of Prides Deli will inspire other small businesses to hire Bridgewell clients.

"Something so simple can go a long way," she said.

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or pleighton@salemnews.com.

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