Thursday, July 12, 2018

Counselor Spotlight: Leah Burgess

Leah Burgess has been serving the Hampton Roads area as a Vocational Counselor for The Choice Group coming up on two years. Her specialty is with Pre-Employment Transition Services and she also works closely with Virginia Autism Project, a non-profit whose focus is to educate lawmakers and the public on issues that impact individuals with autism. Her love of the job comes from making a difference in her community and watching her clients succeed. One of her favorite experiences so far working with The Choice Group is the Collaborations Conference, held annually in Norfolk. She says, “The Choice Group works hard, but plays harder!” Thanks for all of your hardworking and dedication Leah!  

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Mariam came to TCG when she wanted a change!

Mariam was working a retail job for 5 years before she came to The Choice Group looking for a change. Having lots of experience in the retail space, she was skilled at sales and conversing with customers but wanted something different and challenging. With a fun, talkative, and outgoing personality, Mariam wanted a position where she could interact with a lot of different people and have interesting conversations. She began working with Alexandra, her vocational counselor, in October of 2017.

Together they found a position for food demonstrations at Advantage Solutions. Having a personal interest in cooking at home, this was a job that intrigued her. In her position as an Event Specialist, she is able to combine her retail experience with her love of interacting with customers. 

Initially, she was shy drawing people to her demo station, but with her extended and studied knowledge of the products she’s offering, her confidence grew. Stimulated by her active role in engaging her customers in a sales capacity, Mariam finds creative talking points about the products she is demonstrating and is motivated by getting customers to want to buy her products. She’s truly a natural!

A creative spirit and an amazing artist (her home is filled with unique artworks she has made over the years) Mariam enjoys using her free time to paint and cook at home. She lives with her mom and shares the role of cooking and cleaning. She loves the opportunity this position has given her to try out different foods and products that she can use at home and share with her mom! 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

From secondary meal prep, to employee of the month! Casey found success with supported employment

Katie, a vocational counselor for The Choice Group in the Richmond area, has been working with her client, Casey, since June of last year. Relatively new to the workforce, Casey’s main obstacle was finding a position having limited work experience. Along with his mom and his DARS counselor, Katie and Casey sat down to discuss his previous jobs, training experiences, transportation options, hours of availability, and areas of interest. Where would he even want to work?

With an easy going, positive and flexible attitude, it wasn’t hard to find Casey an employer willing to hire him on! He soon found a position at the Chick-fil-A in Mechanicsville that met with of his availability and transportation options. When he began training, Katie worked with him on his basic food preparation tasks for the restaurant as well as customer service skills such as eye contact, multi-tasking and prioritizing in a fast-paced restaurant environment. Katie also worked with the employer, educating them on the importance of natural supports and incentives. 

On the job, he learned to prepare salads, fruit cups, yogurt parfaits, and wraps to Chick-fil-A standards and making custom orders as needed. Initially a secondary preparation person, his skills grew and is now independent in both opening and closing the food preparation area of the restaurant. Earning the recognition of Employee of the Month/Shining Star, his managers have asked him to help train other employees and has cross-trained on hot food prep and various cleaning and maintenance tasks. 

In the year he has been employed with Chick-fil-A, Casey has grown independent on and off the job site. He is very comfortable in his environment and built great natural support relationships and friends among management and co-workers. He is currently working towards obtaining his driver’s license to get back and forth independently. Katie checks in monthly with Casey and his managers with phone calls and on-site visits.

When he’s not at work, you can find him video gaming and joking around with his friends online. Casey enjoys spending time with his dogs and taking vacations with his family.  

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

What does a Job Coach even do?

Darya "Dasha" Bell worked with our Northwest Manager, Adrienne Rudacille. After her experience, she created a super cute and insightful PowerPoint about what her job coach actually does day in and out! We think she nailed it!!!

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Passion, Dedication, and Teamwork: Highlighting Buddy Blatz!

Since starting with The Choice Group, Buddy Blatz has developed himself as both a leader and advocate in his field of work. Buddy is a Lead Counselor in the Central Region of Virginia and provides WISA and TTW services throughout most of the state. Buddy’s coworkers define him as being supportive and always “keeps it interesting" in meetings. He has become well known throughout the state as a knowledgeable and passionate WISA services expert.

There is a common opinion among his colleagues who believe he is an inspiration in the work environment when it comes to being a resource and ally to those around him. Here are some of the things his colleagues had to say:

"Buddy Blatz is a phenomenal man. I have so much honor and respect for him. Never in my three years at the Choice Group have I been inspired by someone as I have Buddy.  I work in Richmond with the WISA Program and he is always available to answer any question, help me with reports, come to my aide when all else has failed and to do it with a smile on his face. My comment to him is, “Buddy, thank you for being MY Buddy.”

Michelle Champion
WISA Administrative Assistant
The Choice Group

"I always hear how knowledgeable he is on the topic and how he has a way of explaining it; making it easy to understand. He really breaks it down to a simple concept. He is also very passionate about WISA services and gets excited explaining all the benefits available.”

Tiffany R. Jenkins, M.S., CRC, CRP
Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services

"Dependable. Always able to answer the difficult benefits questions and explain situations in a way that our consumers are left with confidence."  

Nikki Mangold, MS
Pre Employment Transition Services Counselor
Department of Aging and Rehabilitation

Congratulations Buddy on all your success and achievements, you are appreciated!

Monday, May 14, 2018

Counselor Feature: Meet Cati Howard!

Cati has been with The Choice Group since February of this year, she serves the Southwest area of Virginia. As a vocational counselor, she loves that her job has given her the ability to make a positive difference in someone's life. Knowing that she has a hand in helping her clients accomplish their employment goals and gain self-confidence through the process is a huge job pay off for Cati. “Helping someone to gain and maintain employment is such a rewarding experience,” she says, and quoting one of her own clients adds, “I don’t dread coming to work.” 

Her most memorable experience to date is the first client she ever worked with. “He was able to secure work with a wonderful company and quickly made natural support systems among his coworkers,” she explains. The way his coworkers and peers showed their support for her client was a moving experience. “I was moved not only by the support shown to my client by his peers but also the thoughtfulness and patience of his management team.” 

Cati continues to do a stellar job at The Choice Group, and is a wonderful addition to our Diversity Committee as well!

Thursday, May 10, 2018

New Team Members!

We'd like to introduce some great individuals that just joined our team! 

Siera Ellis
Administrative Program Support Specialist

Chris McElfresh
Administrative Program Support Specialist

Dana O'Connell
Vocational Technician - Richmond

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Meet Chantile!

Chantile has been working at Elite Laundry since December 2016.  Before coming to Elite Laundry, she was a student in the Career Development Program at Norview High School.  After high school, Chantile participated as an intern in the Project SEARCH program, a national program that helps young adults with disabilities transition from school to work.  The program is a collaboration between Norfolk Public Schools, Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, The Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services and The Choice Group, an employment service organization.

Chantile comes in every Tuesday morning and goes through the hangers that have been returned by our customers. Each week there are hundreds of hangers that are sent out with tablecloths.  Many of our customers return these hangers to be reused.  This helps provide a job for Chantile and also keeps them out of the landfill.  These hangers need all of their tags removed as well as the tubes that are dirty or bent.She then takes the "good" hangers used by our linen folders.  Chantile's job can be tedious, but she always does it with a smile!  When asked what she loves best about her job, she said, "I love getting out of the house and coming to see everyone at work." She also says she likes her job and likes working with other people.  Elite Laundry thanks you for sending your hangers back in to be reused.  It provides Chantile a few hours of work each week where she can feel valued and needed.

Megan Stover and the Elite Laundry Team

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

For Brian, success is just a commute away!

Nolan Speichinger has been working with Brian Rogers since December of last year. After determining that applying for an AbilityOne job would be the best strategy for Brian at the recommendation of his DARS counselor, they applied for jobs through a government contracting agency located in Northern Virginia. The AbilityOne program "is among the largest sources of employment, on Federal contracts, for individuals who are blind or have significant disabilities in the United States.” Soon, they found a great position for Brian at a government facility in Washington D.C.!

There were many new challenges that Brian had to face with his new job, one of them being transportation. His daily commute in and out of the city usually averages one and a half to two hours and involves getting on the bus to the Franconia/Springfield station, getting off at the metro station, and walking to his nightly shift on time. When he returns from work, the bus is no longer in service and has learned how to order himself an Uber back to his home from the station. Learning this route was a huge achievement for Brian.

Being a man of routine, this job allows Brian to know what to expect with a reliable list of tasks to perform. Brian has been tasked with cleaning the basement of a major government building in D.C. and reports to his supervisors before every shift to receive his “route sheet.” His route sheet helps him to check off that he has pulled trash, vacuumed and made sure each room is ready for the next day.

With the support he has received from his family, job coach, and supervisors, Brian has been able to go from needing total supports to doing most of it independently. He has become more confident in himself and knows that he can do this job without a job coach overseeing his tasks throughout the shift. A recent improvement on the job has been his ability to call his supervisors when any questions, concerns or issues arise since he works by himself. He also went from not knowing how to use the metro system to now commuting successfully five days a week. 

With only three weeks on the job, Brian has achieved a great deal and we wish him continuing success in the future!

Friday, April 6, 2018

Brittany found a great job match!

I began working with Brittany Heath in October 2017, just after she had been offered a position with Walmart on Southpoint Parkway in Fredericksburg, VA in the Maintenance Department. She had worked with another job coach previously and I began working with her once she got the job! Brittany likes to keep things neat and tidy and this position was a great fit for her. Brittany had a wonderful trainer who helped her learn her job duties and answered all of her questions. Brittany picked up her job duties quickly and was moved to follow along services a mere two months after starting her job.  The management staff at Walmart are all very pleased with Brittany’s performance and praise her every time I visit the site. She recently began assisting with the training of new maintenance staff coming on board and says often how much she really likes her job. She is currently working part-time hours, up to 24 hours per week, usually three 8-hour days.

Tricia Ann Hall
Vocational Counselor, Northern Virginia

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Experience and determination got Keaton the job he wanted!

During the Fall of 2014, Keaton Hanks was a volunteer with a new and emerging consulting group in the Pulaski area of southwestern Virginia. Around that time, Keaton began working with his job coach at The Choice Group through Community Support Services. His objective was to gain employment as the consulting group's part-time administrative assistant by working on his customer service and administrative assistance skills with his coach, Caitlin Igor. Together they worked on phone etiquette, data entry, and in-person customer interaction skills while he was volunteering at the consulting agency.

After several months of progress, Keaton was hired as the part-time administrative assistant at the consulting agency where he was volunteering! He and his job coach continued to work on reading and interpreting detailed instructions to complete data entry projects as well as advancing his already improved customer service skills.

From his workstation at the front entrance, Keaton greets customers of the agency and assists them with locating employees in the office. He is in charge of file maintenance, often organizing, checking, and shredding files as needed. Some of the data entry projects Keaton completes are updates to digital client files as well as entering payment information for them. While Keaton takes pride in all of his job duties, he says, “my favorite thing to do is run errands!” Keaton is in charge of collecting the office’s outgoing and incoming mail and speaking with local employers in the area. One reason Keaton likes working at his consulting agency is that “it’s a good Christian group.” Keaton is upbeat each day he is at work and says, “I’m happy to do whatever my bosses ask me to do during the day."

Keaton has been working with the agency for over 3 years now, has his own business card and has now earned the professional title of Specialist of First Impressions!

Keaton enjoys a wide range of interests and skills and keeps himself busy by volunteering with local nursing and rehabilitation facilities, writing local sports articles about Pulaski County High School Football and Basketball, which he posts on his personal blog, as well as packing food in backpacks for local children in the community.

Keaton and his grandmother, Faye | Source New River CC

Keaton recently became a Pastor's assistant at his church as well as co-authored a book about his life with his Grandmother entitled “Keaton’s Story: The Surprising Uniqueness of Autism.”

Thursday, March 1, 2018

March Events!

The Choice Group is happy to participate in two great events this month that both happen to be taking place on Saturday, March 17th! We want to get awareness out there so anyone who wants to attend has ample time to plan ahead. We hope to see you out and about at one of these great events! 

Life After High School Transition & Resource Fair
Join us in Charlottesville for this FREE event available to students, parents, and Educators!

March in March upcoming
The Culpeper County Disability Services Advisory Committee is hosting its 2nd Annual March in March from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Culpeper Baptist Church, 318 S. West St. The rain-or-shine event will promote disability awareness while providing resources and information about available services.

The event will involve a 30-45 minute walk or ride up to Main Street through the downtown area. There will be balloons, vendors, and food by the Lions Club. No sign-up is necessary. For information or to sponsor a booth, contact

Source: Culpeper Star-Exponent

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Client Success Story!

Ryan Page, a vocational counselor for the south-west region of Virginia started working with his client in June of 2016.  As a friendly and hardworking individual, Ryan’s client felt like his skills fit well in a grocery store setting.  When he first began his job, Ryan’s client was to stock vegetables as well as sort and unload palettes.  They worked together on pacing and efficiency in completing his everyday tasks.

Now, after being employed for a year and a half, Ryan’s client has seen a raise and a promotion at work.  He is currently in follow-along services and his employer states that he continues to excel. 

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Lauren found success through Vocational Counseling!

Katelyn Lacy, a vocational counselor in the Central Virginia region, started working with Lauren Garrett in April of 2017.  They began by completing extensive job development training for four and a half months. Together, they worked on job interviewing skills, social interactions within interviews as well as with coworkers.  Lauren worked on distinguishing boundaries with coworkers as well as learning appropriate topics of conversation in the workplace.

While Lauren has many personal strengths — she is a straightforward and friendly person— when Katelyn began working with her it was clear she wasn’t a fan of change. However, as time went on, Katelyn was able to support Lauren through the transition of finding employment, transportation, and learning communication styles with different individuals in different environments.  After this learning period and 11 interviews, Lauren obtained her current position at UVA Runk Dining Hall with Aramark as a Food Service worker in the Bakery!

During her first week of working at Aramark in the dining hall, she was placed in the salad bar, but due to the short staff in the bakery department, the Supervisor ended up moving her to Bakery.  She was resistant at first to the move, but after discussing the position and skills that she could gain, Lauren agreed to give it a try.  Now, Lauren is happy and loves her position in the Bakery and doesn’t mind switching to other stations within the dining hall as Aramark employees work as a team unit and Lauren is always happy to support her co-workers.

Her daily tasks consist of food prepping, baking and following a schedule of dessert items that need to be portioned, plated, or baked each day.  In addition to the bakery, Lauren also supports other stations within the dining hall if there is a call-out or extra help is needed.  She truly enjoys helping her coworkers.

Lauren loves to speak and get to know others, so she has made many friends with her coworkers and students while working at the UVA Dining Hall.  She also has the dream of opening her own bakery someday as she truly enjoys it!  The dining hall continues to be a great opportunity to allow Lauren to gain new skills, find a creative outlet in baking, and talking with others as she enjoys and is good at making friends.

Lauren has grown within her position at Aramark and achieved multiple Spot Awards for Sell and Serve with Passion and Teamwork.  She has also been mentioned on the WOW Board that posts surveys of dining hall customers for her friendliness and efforts at the bakery. She has also become accomplished at gaining healthy and supportive relationships with her coworkers and Supervisors that has allowed her to become more comfortable at work. She has improved communication with others about concerns or confusion with conversations she may not understand.  She has reached stability within her position and her case has since been closed within job training services.  Lauren continues to reach out to her Supervisors and coworkers for support when needed and she continues to grow and shine within her position.

Lauren is a loving, comical and friendly young woman. She loves to make others laugh and have a good time.  Alongside her sense of humor, she is from the small town of Gordonsville and has that distinct southern charm about her.  She knows practically everyone from her hometown and enjoys getting to know all the ‘regulars' at Runk Dining Hall.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Christopher found a success through job training!

Heather Gilman, a Choice Group counselor serving Central Virginia started working with her client, Christopher in July of 2017.  Together they made lists of Christopher’s job preferences such as cleaning and stocking, and she was able to set up vocational assessments to try out those skills in action. While he performed well, they did not seem to be the best job fit.  As Heather got to know Christopher and his family, discussing his hobbies and interests, his family told her that he enjoys cooking loves helping out in the kitchen. Bingo! They immediately began looking for opportunities in local restaurants to complete another assessment.

It was during this time that Heather came across a flyer for the Stone Soup Project. Stone Soup is a food service training program designed to help those who complete the course get necessary job skills to enter the workforce. After talking about the opportunity with Christopher, she advocated to support him in this program to his DARS Counselor.  The 6-week course began in October. They attended the classes together and Christopher not only learned important food prep skills but received many items he could take home in order to practice what he learned in class.

Since Christopher had such an affinity for working in the kitchen and around food, he did well to learn new tasks.  He enjoyed his homework and practicing techniques he learned in each of his classes which helped with his skill acquisition.  During the course, their largest one yet, Heather assisted Christopher to position himself in key spots in the classroom so that he could see the skills being modeled and ensured he had a chance to try out the skills being taught.  Christopher also developed some natural supports with other class participants who wanted to see him be successful.  Christopher continued to learn more skills each week. He would remember what we had done the week before and was able to increase his independence with assigned tasks. His knife skills greatly improved over the course of the program.   

During his time at the Stone Soup Project, Christopher received three certificates for completing the class: ServSafe, Customer Services: In Action, and Stone Soup Food Prep Job Skills. Heather and Christopher will begin JD in January and are positive that all of the skills and certificates he has earned will make his job search with local restaurants successful.

Christopher loves to cook and listen to all types of music.  He is an extremely friendly and personable guy. When you speak with Christopher, you can’t help but smile.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Teresa Harold Planned her Success with Transitional Services

When Teresa first began working with The Choice Group, she was a young lady finishing up her last year in high school and planning for her future. She was beginning to explore employment opportunities and starting to ask what a good career fit would be for her, but Teresa already knew the answer!  She was emphatic about becoming a baker. Teresa and her job coach, Justin, began working together to learn more about what was involved in a career as a baker. By completing situational assessments throughout the community, Teresa was able to gain hands-on experience with local businesses such as grocery store bakeries, cupcake shops, bread bakers, and fast food restaurants that prepared baked goods in-house. Through completing multiple assessments arranged by Justin, Teresa was able to truly hone in on her passion—cake decorating—and continued to build her skills with practice and baking courses offered in her high school as she prepared for graduation.

Throughout this time, Justin worked with Teresa on identifying appropriate environments for her, the supports necessary for her to be successful, and developed realistic expectations about the labor market and skills required to prepare for entering this field.

Once Teresa graduated from high school, she was armed with a portfolio of her cake decorating experience during her time in high school, as well as having several paid internships that she participated in, all which came about from situational assessments. Teresa and her job coach sought out job leads in the community; reaching out to employers and marketing her strengths—a fantastic attitude, her dedication and focus, and her passion for baking.

With the help of Justin, Teresa sent a letter to Carytown Cupcakes detailing her experience and desire to work as a baker and was offered an opportunity for a paid working interview. The employer noted that it was important the environment be a good fit for Teresa as well and wanted to offer her the opportunity to ensure she would enjoy the position by trying it out first. After two days working in their kitchen, she was offered the baker’s assistant position and gladly accepted!

Teresa began working immediately and quickly built up her skill set by learning how to scoop cupcake batter, bake the cupcakes, and ice the cupcakes using different icing tips. Her job coach, Justin, worked with Teresa on building her speed and accuracy by approaching tasks systematically, built natural supports to help her increase independence on the work site, and to navigate the complexities that sometimes face individuals as they begin their first job.

As of December, Teresa has moved into follow-along services, no longer requiring hands-on training support and is independently able to complete all her job duties. Her employer notes that they are happy to have her on their team and that she improves every day. For some, those remarks would be reward enough, for Teresa, the reward is the opportunity to do something that she is passionate about. As she states, “I love getting to come to work and being able to do this every day!”

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Introducing New Therapeutic Behavior Services

We have many programs we offer to our clients, and they have now expanded to include Therapeutic Behavior Services:

Therapeutic Behavior Services are provided to clients with challenging behaviors that interfere with
community engagement, independent living, and employment. Using Applied Behavior Analysis and a person-centered approach, clients and their support teams are given the skills necessary to decrease
these challenging behaviors and replace them with ones that will help fulfill their goals. A Board
Certified Behavior Analyst will make assessments, develop support plans, train, and supervise behavioral interventions so that clients may make meaningful progress toward their goals.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Counselor Highlight: Jessica Womack!

Jessica Womack has been a counselor for The Choice Group in the Southwest region of Virginia for over a year now! She specializes in CSS work, Community Support Services. Job seeking is not the only important step for many individuals seeking to maximize independence and with Jessica’s skills, she helps her clients prepare for other life tasks. Time management, grocery shopping and meal preparation, personal safety, laundry, medication, and money management are just a few of the everyday activities many of us take for granted but can seem daunting for an individual on their own for the first time.  One of her favorite parts of the job is that she “loves being able to work collaboratively with other counselors for the common cause of servicing individuals with disabilities in her community.” Keep up the good work, Jessica!