Monday, May 20, 2019

“Remember, I am Superman on crutches!”

“All my life I have had to prove people wrong… but I am not easily intimidated.” Alberto Gamboa shares about the career he has built, in spite of expectations from a young age that he would not accomplish much because of his disability.  Alberto was born in Columbia with Cerebral Palsy. Doctors feared he would not live, much less lead a successful life. He defied all expectations by making a life for himself and building a meaningful career that has lasted decades.  

As a teenager, Alberto came to the United States and worked his way through college as a dishwasher in Florida. He began his professional career working with the children of migrant families through the Palm Beach County School Board and received a Masters of Science in Organizational Leadership.  For twenty years, Alberto worked full time in spite of the physical limitations he experienced as a result of Cerebral Palsy. He began as a community resource facilitator for migrant families and grew within the organization to become a case manager, unit leader, and social worker.

After twenty years of meaningful work, Alberto experienced a life-altering setback. He underwent surgery which had unforeseen complications, causing him debilitating pain and significantly decreasing his mobility. “Following my hip surgery, I was unable to return to work and was unsure if I would ever be able to work again“ Alberto said.  

As a result he qualified for Social Security Disability Insurance. A federal, insurance-based program that provides income to workers who have become disabled.  Having worked his entire life, Alberto shared how difficult it was for him to stop working. “I wasn’t sure about going on disability, because I wanted to work, and I knew that if I started on disability I would get in the state of mind that I can no longer do anything else.”  

For six years, Alberto was able to focus on his physical recovery while these benefits provided financial stability for his family. Social Security Disability Insurance provided enough to meet his basic needs, but not the life he wanted.  

Fast forward to six years later, Alberto was living in Virginia when he began to experience some medical improvement.  He continued to use forearm crutches for mobility, but his hip pain had decreased. As Alberto’s health improved, he considered returning to work, but had questions about his disability benefits. He had concerns about his stamina, physical limitations, and what would happen if he were unable to sustain employment once he began working again.

Alberto shares that he never lost the desire to return to work for two reasons: “Pride and economics.”  His career had provided him with a great sense of accomplishment and self-worth, while also providing a level of financial security that he was unable to achieve through disability benefits alone. These motivations outweighed his fear, as he explained, “Even if you are afraid, the biggest mistake you can make is to do nothing… to take no action.”

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Alberto began to do research on returning to work. “I didn’t know I had options to return to work” he said, but he visited the Social Security Administration’s Ticket to Work website to learn more. There he was able to find a list of Employment Networks who could assist him with understanding the impact of work on his benefits and assist him with finding employment.  

He contacted The Choice Group because they were listed as a local Employment Network. A Vocational Counselor responded to his call and met with him in person to hear his story. She listened to his goals and helped him plan for the next step in his career.  He was also able to meet with a Work Incentive Specialist Advocate, who explained how his benefits would change when he returned to work and how he could protect his Medicare.  

Alberto worked closely with his Vocational Counselor to address the obstacles he faced when getting a job. Because of the six-year gap on his resume he found it difficult to stand out in a pool of qualified applicants. He shared his frustrations, saying that “People assumed that because I had been out of work for so long, I would not be able to do the job.”

He and his Vocational Counselor created a resume and cover letter together, worked to build his professional network, and sought out the positions that would meet his needs and qualifications. Together, they set clear parameters for his job search, which included salary, schedule, and physical requirements.  Alberto was the one to direct his career search, but this added support allowed him to find additional job leads, follow up with employers to secure interviews, and speak confidently about his qualifications to get a job offer working with immigrants who are at risk of deportation.

Alberto returned to work, excited to take on this challenge. He shared, “Having support and knowing that I had a safety net and could return to a cash benefit if I needed to gave me confidence to try working and see if I was able to maintain it.”  For the first twelve months of work he continued to receive his full disability check as a result of Trial Work Period and Grace Period Work Incentives.  His Medicare coverage continued and he was able to acquire additional health insurance through his employer, which provided coverage for his wife. He was able to rebuild financial security and confidence.

The demands of his position were extremely challenging, both physically and emotionally.  His employer offered to make reasonable accommodations, but Alberto was able to succeed in his position without them.  Sitting with his Vocational Counselor he shared that he carries a caseload of more than 120 immigrants and spends at least one day a week in the field meeting them in person and visiting their homes.  

Alberto says, “I’ve gained a reputation around the office because I am too nice to people. My coworkers tell participants, ‘I hope you get Alberto as your case manager, because he is the nicest’” Even when it makes his own work-load and schedule more challenging, Alberto goes out of his way to meet immigrant participants where they are and make sure that he is setting them up for success rather than failure. When people question his ability to do this challenging work, he jokingly says, “Remember, I am Superman on crutches!”

Three years later, he continues to have the support of his Vocational Counselor and benefits advisor.  He has the opportunity to grow in his career and seek opportunities for advancement. He has confidence that over the next five years, if he is unable to work because of his disability or needs to decrease his hours. He will be able to get his disability benefit back through, and Expedited Reinstatement, and that The Choice Group will assist him with this process.  

Alberto says that he works so hard for his participants who are in danger of deportation because, “I have a heart for all these people and I care about what I do.”  He says that having a disability has made him stronger, rather than weaker, because he has had to overcome so many obstacles in his life. “My reward is when participants tell me, ‘At least you treat me like a human being.  Even though I am going through this, I come to you and I don’t feel intimidated’. I have empathy for them because of my life experiences.”

Alberto shares this advice for anyone who has a disability and is considering returning to work, “I would advise anyone who feels they are able to go to work to give it a try. It’s going to make you feel better as a person… You are going to improve your financial situation.  And also, you can continue paying into Social Security for later in life when you may be able to earn more in retirement”. There is no question that Alberto has improved his own life, as well as the lives of others by using Ticket to Work, The Choice Group and his incredible drive to succeed.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Akia Is Zealous For Zoup

Mary Chris Werner began working with Akia Turner in February of 2018 and has been employed at Zoup for over a year, where her and Mary feel she is a great fit. Originally Akia was looking for a stocking position but Mary helped open her up to the option of working in food services. Akia is diligent, hardworking and polite to her fellow employees and the customers she serves. She has great time management skills which help her with completing daily tasks on time and her personality is perfect for customer interaction.
When she first started to apply and interview for jobs she was a little quiet and shy but has truly blossomed. This was her first job, therefore, she had to overcome the obstacles many face when starting a new position or beginning their first job. In the beginning she had trouble taking initiative, but being there for a year now, she has found her voice. She has shown improvement and helps when business picks up by increasing her hours as needed. She always takes the initiative to clean the dining room and works hard to learn tasks upfront. Her managers have asked her to work more days, if it can be worked out with day support, and she is happy to help if she is able! Akia’s daily tasks include cleaning dishes, cleaning the dining room, and has began to slowly learn how to prepare the salads and sandwiches.
Mary and Akia communicate monthly on how she is doing in her current position, although  Akia and her managers have great communicate when Mary is not around. She has accomplished so much and continues to show improvement by working more hours, taking the initiative and getting comfortable with learning food prep. Her coworkers love working with her and say that she is a great asset. In her spare time, Akia loves going to day support and hanging out with her dog when she is not picking up more hours at the restaurant.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Movie Lover, Quanita, Finds Work At A Local Movie Theatre

Rachel McGregor, Vocational Counselor, was serving the Hampton Roads area when Quanita became her client in 2014.
Quanita works at a local movie theatre in the area and has been an employee there since 2013. After Quanita graduated from Project SEARCH in 2013 she began looking for a job that would fit the skills she had learned while working at the hospital during her internship. Her tasks at the movie theatre include following a task list to determine which theatres to clean after showings, maintaining the restrooms and keeping the lobby area up to par for guests. Quanita is very reliable, and will pick up any shift she is asked to work. She also has a lot of energy and can work on her feet for long periods of time. Quanita is very independent and lives close to work so she is able to walk if she is unable to find a ride. 
Obstacles Quanita has overcome in her position include limiting her socializing and identifying professional work boundaries. Quanita is very friendly and really enjoyed socializing with her peers. Learning appropriate work boundaries and professional social interactions have made Quanita a better employee.  She now also works as part of a team. When she first started, she had her own tasks, but she now works with her team members to get all the work done and is a great asset to them!
Quanita lives in a supportive living environment where she has learned to keep up with all the responsibilities that come along with work. She maintains her own uniform, plans her transportation, and keeps track of her personal finances. 
Since Quanita started working at the theatre, her managers have increased her hours significantly due to the improvements they have seen in her work performance over the years. When Quanita first started, she worked weekends only, and now she works between 30 and 36 hours a week.
Rachel monitors Quanita’s work performance monthly through observance as well as gathering feedback from her managers to ensure that she is maintaining job expectations. Rachel also offers assistance with communication between Quanita and her managers as required. 

When Quanita is not hard at work at the movie theater, you might have already guessed it, she loves watching movies! She also loves shopping for jewelry and make-up, especially lip gloss! One of the other things Quanita enjoys is helping to care for the children that live in her home.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Project SEARCH Norfolk Interns Visit City of Norfolk Resources

Pictured here are our Project SEARCH Norfolk Interns on their visit to various City of Norfolk resources during their workshop week. This helps the interns become more familiar with what services are out there for them as they are entering adulthood and the workforce. They have just finished their 2nd internship and will be starting their 3rd internship in the next week! We are so proud of all of the work they have done and everything they have accomplished thus far during their internship. Vocational Counselor, Rachel McGregor, shared this photo of the interns in-front of one of the buildings they visited and has had the pleasure of working with each one of them along their journey. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Customer Service With A Smile: Gina's Success Story

As soon as you walk into this grocery store you can’t miss Gina Loucks. She will be the first person to greet you and ask if she can help you. As a Courtesy Clerk, Gina is responsible for completing floor sweeps, collecting carts, bagging groceries, helping customers find products, and taking groceries out to customers’ cars. She has been working at her current employer since 2011 and loves what she does.  Ericka Neville, Vocational Counselor from The Choice Group, began working with Gina in 2010 to help her find a job that would be a good match for her skills and abilities. Gina is a people person and gets joy from helping others. Gina and Ericka worked to identify positions where she could interact with others, submitted applications, and practiced interviewing skills together. When Gina attended an interview with this grocery store, she knew right away that this was the job she wanted.  She was hired, began working in May 2011, and to this day continues to give 100% during every shift. Her managers say that she is always reliable and always helps out whenever they are short staffed. Gina starts working as soon as she clocks in and knows exactly what she is supposed to do. Although, more than anything, Gina’s smile, friendliness towards customers, and positive attitude is what makes her stand out. Gina has been recognized as the Employee of the Month in the past and gets customer compliments almost weekly for going the extra mile. Gina recalls the time that she found a tablet in an empty cart in the parking lot and returned it to Customer Service right away. When the customer realized that she had left it and returned to the store, she made sure to thank Gina for finding and returning the device. Her managers appreciate how she consistently goes above and beyond expectations for the customers. Ericka enjoys hearing the praise from both managers and customers when visiting Gina at work, monthly and is proud of the commitment Gina shows to her job.

When Gina is not working, she enjoys bowling and is part of a local bowling league. She likes adult coloring books, watching TV, and spending time with her family.

Shay's Success Story

When counselor Erin Lloyd began working with Shay Ruff, who interned with Blue Ridge Independent Living Center (BRILC) in Roanoke, Virginia back in 2007, she had no way of knowing that she would eventually become an employee.  Ten years later, in the spring of 2017, Shay was hired for a new position, as a Youth Transition Coordinator. She worked with her DARS Placement Counselor and, once hired, was introduced to Erin Lloyd, a Vocational Counselor with The Choice Group.  She and her employer communicated about the position and worked together to ensure accommodations were in place, so that Shay had a work environment in which she felt comfortable. She and her Vocational Counselor worked closely as she began learning her position and adjusted to working in an office setting four days each week. Shay set goals for herself, initially wanting to stay employed there three, and then six months. Almost two years later, Shay is still working with BRILC and speaks of her position with pride. She has a strong work ethic, an interest in helping others, and a supportive employer. Part of her role is to work with youth with disabilities and help them learn how to advocate for themselves and build independent living skills while transitioning into adulthood.  
Shay has a strong sense of self-advocacy, even being featured on the local news communicating the need for increased public transportation, including paratransit, in the Roanoke Valley. She has been a leader in advocacy groups and graduated from Radford University, where she studied social work. She markets services that BRILC offers the community and has a passion for her field. With a smile that rarely leaves her face when speaking of her work, Shay is always happy to answer questions and help others.    

Monday, March 11, 2019

Stacey Serves Smiles at a Local Italian Restaurant

Rachel, vocational counselor serving the hampton roads area, began working with Stacey Whitter in the Summer of 2016. Stacey completed the Project SEARCH program and was able to try out different internships throughout the hospital in which he interned for. He did a great job in all 3 of his internships, but, really enjoyed working in Food Services/Patient Foods. Rachel and Stacey quickly realized that one of Stacey's strengths was his ability to connect with people and bring joy to any work environment. Looking at his skills and interests, they really wanted to find Stacey a job where he could be himself and work alongside others who share the same values. Rachel first started working with YNot Italian in the summer of 2016 to find a client, through The Choice Group, to work for them. That is when Stacey found and landed his current position there! YNot Italian has always been a big supporter of disability awareness, especially during the month of October which is National Disability Employment Awareness month. They partner with organizations and school districts to hold fundraisers and events supporting the initiative. Stacey has successfully maintained the position at YNot Italian for over one year now and has even overcame some obstacles! One obstacle Stacey has overcome was his communication skills. Rachel and Stacey used a picture resume for Stacey's interview with YNot, so they were able to see photos of Stacey in action. They were able to see his abilities without Stacey having to verbally describe them. Stacey's speech becomes intelligible to a familiar listener and once the YNot team met Stacey, communication was no longer a barrier. Another barrier Stacey has overcome is transportation. Due to downtown congestion, it was difficult for Stacey's bus to pick him up safely. Stacey's coworkers would make sure Stacey was able to find his bus and make his way out there safely.
Stacey’s job tasks include folding the pizza boxes, preparing the salad dressings, setting the tables, cleaning the menus, and helping with any other task his manager may need him to do. Rachel checks on Stacey about once a month to ensure he is continuing to be successful on the job. Stacey receives tons of support from his managers and coworkers and are always there to help if Stacey needs anything while at work. Since beginning work at YNot Italian, Stacey has become more independent and loves going to work. He enjoys helping others and meeting new people. YNot Italian has been the perfect fit for Stacey and he is very happy.

Stacey has an uncanny ability to bring joy to any environment or setting that he enters. Stacey's attitude towards work and his general outlook on life impacts everyone he comes in contact with. “You can't help but smile when you meet Stacey” says Rachel. “In the 3 years I have been working with Stacey, one of the things that stands out most is Stacey's rhythm. He has some of the best dance moves of anyone I have seen. One of Stacey's all time favorite songs to dance to is The Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song and he really gives Will Smith a run for his money. Stacey is a childhood Leukemia survivor and spent a lot of time in and out of hospital when he was younger. Stacey's mother told us that he started dancing at a very young age, while hospitalized, the nurses would dance with Stacey to keep his mind off of his treatment. Stacey is healthy now, and instead of dancing with nurses, he continues to dance with his coworkers.”