Monday, November 11, 2019

Ethan's Employment

Ethan and his Vocational Counselor Nancy McNamara began working together in late 2015. Ethan showed a great interest in working in the food service industry, but he did not have a work history and lives in a rural area with limited employers. Ethan has difficulty answering questions and articulating his abilities in an interview, so Nancy advocated for working interviews. The Owner at Don Pancho's Cantina in Franklin determined Ethan would be an asset to them and decided to give him a chance.

Ethan does well in his job because he is friendly and hardworking. Management always makes note of how much the customers love Ethan. They also can always depend on Ethan coming to work on time with a great attitude. His current tasks are to buss tables, clean the parking lot, and host. Hosting includes greeting and seating people and giving them menus, bringing them chips, salsa and silverware.

Nancy maintains monthly communication with the Managers and Owner of Don Pancho's, as well as with Ethan and his mom, to ensure everything is going well at work. Nancy, his Managers and his family have seen that Ethan has become a much more sociable and responsible person since he began work. He is currently working to save money to go on train trips which he enjoys.

In his free time, Ethan goes on train trips and participates regularly in the Special Olympics in bowling and swimming. His employer sponsors him every year in the Special Olympics Polar Plunge! He also enjoys going to the Tides baseball games.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Trivette's Sweet Success

Trivette and her Vocational Counselor Nancy McNamara began working together in the summer of 2015.  Trivette was interested in a position in the food industry.  Although Trivette did not have any prior work experience, and lived in a rural area with limited employment options, they were able to find her a job as Lobby Attendant at the local Dairy Queen, where she started in September of that year and is still working there four years later.  Nancy describes Trivette as hardworking, responsible and reliable, three qualities in demand by employers.  

Trivette works hard and always strives to do her best, which had helped her to excel in her position. She recently received a raise and promotion to Food Prep Worker, where she is doing an amazing job.  Instead of cleaning the lobby, restrooms and parking lot, and interacting in a welcoming and positive way with guests, she is now responsible for food prep for salads and sandwiches.  When not involved in her primary functions, she continues to take care of trash removal and refilling the ice.  She is a busy employee!

"Trivette has grown a lot since she started working. She has matured and become a more responsible person and has also grown socially. She is less shy and more able to communicate effectively" says Nancy.  Trivette also is now able to contribute financially to bills in her home, including food and her cell phone.  Nancy has noticed that Trivette appears to be much happier now that she is employed and part of a team at work.  Nancy continues to support Trivette by communicating regularly with her, her aunt and her managers.  If Trivette needs support, Nancy helps her problem solve and understand expectations at work. 

In her free time, Trivette enjoys attending church, going out to eat, and shopping.  She especially enjoys spending time with her godbrother, taking him to the park and playing games with him.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Joshua Grows With Employment

Joshua's Success Story: "Joshua Grows With Employment"

Joshua and his vocational counselor, Justin, began working together in April of this year. Together they found an available position at a local KFC restaurant where Joshua has been employed for the last six months. 

In the beginning, Joshua and Justin completed several assessments to determine Josh's interests and the positions that would be the best fit.  This was followed by interviews and finally a job offer. Although having to overcome difficulties with social skills, including being comfortable speaking with others, Joshua’s social skills have improved greatly. Justin helped Joshua work on new ways to approach and greet guests, as well as helping him to remember his daily job duties, which have also significantly improved since first starting employment at KFC. 

Joshua has a strong drive to learn new things which has really helped him in his job. He has a very positive attitude and is always excited to come to work. Some of his job duties include washing the dishes, as well as the windows, and he really enjoys doing them both. His two favorite parts of the job are using the squeegee to clean the windows, as well as the three-compartment sink to clean the dishes. 

Joshua has achieved so much since beginning employment at KFC and has become much more comfortable in speaking with others. He is able to complete his task list multiple times during a shift and communicate with his supportive associates if there is a problem. When Joshua first began he was very nervous about passing out free desserts to customers in the restaurant, but has since grown and come to enjoy this task. 

Justin continues to support Joshua on the job by demonstrating work site activities, such as engaging with others to do tasks such as passing out free desserts. Justin also provides him with positive feedback and encourages him to do his best. 

His managers and associates at the restaurant love working with Joshua because he has such a positive attitude and great personality. Joshua receives frequent recognition on his great work ethic and is often praised for his great work and growth.

In his free time, Joshua loves to workout at the gym and go on nature walks. He is always giving his parents and counselor advice on choosing better options when it comes to food because he really enjoys health and fitness.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Leon Loves His Job

Leon Loves His Job

Leon Turner and his vocational counselor, Nancy, began working together in July 2017. Together they found his current position at Hardees in September 2017, and he has now been working there for almost two years. Prior to Leon finding his current employer, he lived in an area that offered few opportunities in cleaning, where he had prior experience. With limited transportation, Leon needed to walk or bike to work, which then sparked his interest in working in food service. As they spoke with employers to identify job opportunities, Nancy and Leon found that the local Hardee's in Waverly was hiring!

Leon was offered the job at Hardee's and accepted. His current duties include trash removal, mopping, sweeping, cleaning the parking lot, as well as preparing and cooking all of the food for the line. Leon cooks chicken, chicken tenders, string beans, mashed potatoes, and chicken gravy. He is extremely productive and personable. Everyone at Hardee's always comments on how hard working he is and how much they love him, which makes him such a great fit for the job.

Nancy has noticed that since Leon began working at Hardee's, his self-confidence has improved greatly. She says that, "Leon used to feel hesitant to try new things and felt unsure of his abilities, but he now knows that he is able to tackle new things." Leon is a much happier person since he has been employed, has more financial stability and enjoys working with others as a team.

Nancy checks in with Leon as needed, stopping by the restaurant and following up with his manager. She contacts Leon to ensure that everything is going well, that all of his tasks are being completed and that he continues to succeed in his current position.

When he is not hard at work, Leon loves to ride his bike and spend time with his friends. Keep up the great work, Leon and thank you Nancy for submitting this great story on your client!

Thursday, September 12, 2019

2 billion people will need this tech by 2050: Injured vet shares the good and bad

Phil Swinford's house is full of tech that helps him live more independently, but he's betting it's also going to help him to walk again.

Phil Swinford plays music on his phone.Megan Wollerton/CNET

(Phil Swinford plays music on his phone.Megan Wollerton/CNET)

"OK Google, text Pamela ICE [in case of emergency]," says retired US Army Col. Phil Swinford from his home in the Virginia suburbs, roughly an hour's drive from Washington, DC. He's using Google Assistant on his Android phone to talk to his wife, Pam, who's working today at her consignment shop, the Copper Cricket, a few miles away. I'm listening in, which feels a little too invasive, but it's OK: This text is just for demo purposes.

"Sure," Google's AI responds. "What's the message?"

"Hey, babe. I love you," Phil says clearly and deliberately into his phone.

"I got, 'Hey, babe. I love you,'" it speaks back to him. "Do you wanna send it or change it?"

"Send it," Phil says.

"OK. Message sent," it confirms.

Demo or not, it's sweet that this is the message he chooses to send.

I first met Phil and Pam in 2017 at the Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center at the McGuire VA Hospital in Richmond, Virginia, where they talked with me about the smart home technologies he uses everyday.

I'm here now to see all of it in action.

Phil is an incomplete quadriplegic. His injury was caused in a mountain biking accident in 2015. The "incomplete" part means he has some movement, mainly in his fingers, hands and arms, but he relies on an electric wheelchair to get around.

For injured veterans, smart tech is crucial to quality of life
Smart home technology is giving wounded veterans the life they deserve
How one man made Google Home more accessible for anyone

About 3.6 million Americans and more than 250,000 veterans use wheelchairs, according to a 2018 study. More than one billion people in the world need at least one type of assistive technology; only one in 10 people have that access, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports.

Assistive technology is a category of specialized, often costly, tech designed to help people with disabilities live more fulfilling, independent lives. The smart homeindustry is a mainstream extension of assistive technology. App- and voice-controllable smart locks and LED lights might be a convenience purchase for you and me, but for Phil (and so many others), it means there's one less thing he has to ask Pam -- or one of his caregivers -- to do for him.

Access to smart home technology could also potentially be live-saving, a way to contact someone if he's on his own, to let them know something's wrong.

Together Phil and Pam make a concerted effort to keep up-to-date on all of the latest innovations. Pam searches New Mobility Magazine for the newest devices. Phil reads about research studies and university programs doing interesting work related to spinal cord injuries. He volunteers to test beta software and one-off devices from all over the world -- and provides feedback on what's working and what isn't.

Largely because of their efforts, their house is full of smart home technology. "Even [within] the VA, you have to fight for everything," he explains, and Pam is his strongest advocate. Phil knows he's lucky, and that many don't have the same access. He believes it also helps that he retired as a colonel, a high-ranking position in the US Army.

"[Part of] a senior officer's job is to write and speak, to advocate for his unit, the Army, and if necessary, himself. A guy who gets medically retired as an E4 specialist in the Army [a comparatively low rank -- read more about Army ranks] is not going to have those skills, more than likely," he explains.

The WHO estimates that the number of individuals needing assistive tech will double to two billion people by 2050. Hopefully access will improve with this growing need, but for now, Phil might just have one of the most decked-out setups around.

I'm here to find out what technology is in his house, how he uses it, how well it works and what he'd like to see that hasn't emerged yet.

The tech

Control4, a professionally installed smart home system, is the brains powering Phil's smart home. It isn't marketed as an assistive technology, but it is commonly used for that purpose. The McGuire VA alone has requested about 26 Control4 systems for veterans in the past five years, Melissa Oliver, assistive technology program coordinator at McGuire, tells me over email.

(The Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, a nonprofit that builds custom homes for veterans and first responders critically injured in the line of duty, installed Control4 in the home they built for retired Marine Sergeant Rob Jones.)

Control4 consists of touchscreen control panels, an app and Amazon Alexa speakers to control various connected devices. You could install and configure various smart home devices in a similar way yourself, but Control4 unites them under the same app, which makes them more manageable.

"Due to the vast integration and customization possibilities of Control4, our systems have been installed for many veterans and those who use technology to improve their lives. We love seeing the ways that a Control4 smart home can help, even [in] just the smallest ways," Brad Hintze, Control4 senior director of product marketing said via email.

Phil has Amazon Echo Dot speakers, security cameras, door locks, fans, lighting and doors -- all controllable via Control4. During my visit he demonstrates opening the door in his bedroom, turning lights on and off, turning on the TV and changing the channel, playing music, and even answering a Ring doorbell.

He says the tech works "nearly 95% of the time," which seems about right. He experiences the classic voice assistant annoyances we all do: When Alexa or Google Assistant (on his phone) either doesn't respond when you give a command or thinks you said their name when you didn't.

There were some other issues, particularly in the specialty assistive technology Phil's testing out.

One such software, called Open Sesame by startup Sesame Enable, was developed by Giora Livne, a retired naval officer from Israel who's quadriplegic. Open Sesame had a successful Indiegogo campaign back in 2015, where it raised nearly $60,000.

The Open Sesame app, which costs $20 per month, uses the cameras in Phil's phone and laptop to scan his face (note: Open Sesame is only compatible with Android and Windows at this time). He then navigates apps, responds to emails and plays games -- all using head gestures, with his nose as the cursor.

When Phil uses Open Sesame head gestures to click the Ring push notification, Open Sesame will crash.Megan Wollerton/CNET

(When Phil uses Open Sesame head gestures to click the Ring push notification, Open Sesame will crash.Megan Wollerton/CNET)

But Open Sesame doesn't work perfectly -- the voice command that used to work to open the app has stopped working, and the app crashes when it's competing with a secondary video feed, like the live stream from the Ring doorbell Phil and Pam have out front.

Now he has to use a joystick or his head array (a physical device with built-in sensors that allows Phil to control things with head movements) to pull up the app, which slows things down. That's especially frustrating when he's trying to do something time sensitive, like answer the front door, which is compounded by the issues with the secondary video feed.

Phil likes to order pizza for Pam when she works late. He always instructs the delivery person to bring the pizza inside, but they always ring the doorbell first. (I don't blame them, honestly. I'd probably be hesitant walking into someone else's home too.)

When they buzz the Ring doorbell, Phil gets an alert on his phone. He uses Open Sesame to answer it, but the technology can't continue to scan his face and simultaneously pull up the video of whoever's out front. So instead, Open Sesame crashes, and by the time Phil gets the app open with the joystick or head array to tell them to come in, the person is long gone.

We tested out the Open Sesame/Ring doorbell issue ourselves, along with CNET video producer, Vanessa Salas, and it did indeed stop working. Vanessa waited at the door for at least a minute as Open Sesame stopped and Phil had to switch to a different technology. When it's working, Open Sesame is his fastest option, so it's typically his default choice. But it's essentially a beta technology, so there are glitches.

I also messed up Open Sesame for him at least once by accidentally sticking my head in front of the phone's camera as he tested it out, which, of course, confused the face-tracking software and caused it to crash.

I saw his frustration, navigating these technologies that don't always work the way he needs them to. But Phil is hopeful; he has plans way beyond his current range of motion -- and his current array of smart home tech.

  Phil is training to walk again.Megan Wollerton/CNET

(Phil is training to walk again.Megan Wollerton/CNET)

His goals

Marita Allen, a licensed practical nurse (LPN) who's one of Phil's caregivers, grabs an iPad and shows us videos of Phil walking at the Fairfax DPI Adaptive Fitness Training Center.

In the videos, he uses a walker and electrical stimulation bands attached to his legs that send signals to his brain to help him move. While the staff keep close by in the videos, Phil is walking, the strain of determination clear on his face.

He has a specific goal in mind: his daughter's wedding is coming up, and he wants to walk her down the aisle. My hope is to someday regain upper body movement from the implantation of stem [cells]. I think I'm well along the way in terms of eventually being able to walk with minimal help.
Phil Swinford

He uses electrical stimulation technology at home to continue strengthening his legs when he isn't at physical therapy, as well as something called a mobile arm support to strengthen his arms.

"Until I gain functional movement of an arm that would allow me to use a remote, or open the computer, or open the iPad, I pretty much have to have somebody here [to help]," he says.

Arm strength is also crucial to helping him walk again.

The mobile arm support is an arm brace that helps him extend his arm for things like eating, which, in turn, helps strengthen his arm. There are fewer than 50 of these devices in the United States, he says, because the company stopped selling them here. Pam found it in New Mobility Magazine, and they jumped at the chance to have one.

"I've actually regained some strength and mobility in my right arm [from using the mobile arm support]," he says. Soon, he plans to switch the mobile arm support device to his left arm to help strengthen it, too.

This goes way beyond feeding himself, though, and even beyond walking his daughter down the aisle. Phil is actively trying to keep up his strength so he's ready for future technologies.

He's waiting for Dr. Harkema at the University of Louisville's Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center to further develop her embedded electrical stimulation research, designed to help people with spinal cord injuries to walk again.

"My hope is to someday regain upper body movement from the implantation of [electrical stimulation]. I think I'm well along the way in terms of eventually being able to walk with minimal help," he says.

He also mentioned the Miami Project, which is working on upper-body mobility for quadriplegics.

Phil is eager to participate in the research studies, but doesn't qualify for most of them. They are often looking for complete, rather than incomplete quadriplegics -- individuals with no mobility.

"I don't think I look like a "normal" quadriplegic [Phil says "quote, unquote normal" here]. I still have significant muscle mass. I mean, I can sit on a leg press and press 220 pounds," he explains.

In addition to his hope for embedded electrical stimulation, Phil wants an embedded device that helps him breathe. He currently uses a diaphragmatic pacing system to assist with breathing -- it's a battery-powered device that stimulates his diaphragm, allowing it to contract more naturally.

"Instead of me having to carry this Star Trek Tricorder around [the pacing system], we can embed microcontrollers in my body and then recharge it at night, the way pacemakers work," he explains.

Phil kicks me out at exactly noon. His schedule is pretty full today, but he says I should drop in on Pam at her shop. 

Pam's got Phil's back taken in 2017 at the McGuire VA Hospital.Tyler Lizenby/CNET

(Pam's got Phil's back taken in 2017 at the McGuire VA Hospital.Tyler Lizenby/CNET)

The advocate

Phil walks his daughter, Jillian, down the aisle. Wendy Atkinson

(Phil walks his daughter, Jillian, down the aisle. Wendy Atkinson)

When I walk through the doors of Copper Cricket a little after noon, the shop is buzzing and Pam is nowhere to be found.

I eventually find her far in the back, after walking past a maze of rooms packed full of breakable tea sets, mirrors, paintings and a myriad of other collectibles. One particular embroidered wall hanging of birds looks strikingly similar to something that used to hang in my grandmother's house.

Pam is in the middle of lifting a giant planter to bring it to a customer's car. I ask if she needs help with it; she says no.

The area where they live has a lot of former military and state department employees who've moved a lot, she tells me as we walk back to the front of the the store, so she gets items from all over the world.

She talks fast; she has a lot of customers to get to. She reiterates something I remember Phil mentioning when we first met at the VA hospital two years ago -- that technology is great when it works and not so great when it doesn't.

She clearly isn't fazed by it, though. She and Phil will figure it out together.

I find out later that Phil did indeed walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding. Now he's one step closer to his goal.

This is part of CNET's "Tech Enabled" series about the role technology plays in helping the disability community.

Original story written by MEGAN WOLLERTON of CNET.COM

For the link to the original blog, click here.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Joseph (Karate) Chops his Way Into a Career

Joseph (Karate) Chops his Way Into a Career

Joseph began working with his vocational counselor, Justin, beginning in June 2019. Together, they found Joseph an internship at Laughing Dragon Kung-Fu, a local martial arts studio, where he has been for 2 months now. While Justin was there to guide Joseph into finding employment, Joseph was the one who initially thought of pursing a position at the studio. After speaking with the manager of the studio, they got the green light for Joseph to start the internship! The manager informed them that everyone at the studio thought it was a great opportunity for Joseph to excel and use his skills to teach others.

In the beginning, Joseph had to work on his social skills when teaching the children at the studio, but has shown great improvement. Since beginning the internship at the studio Joseph's patience has increased tremendously and his motivation to work and help others has improved greatly as well. Joseph's determination to do well is one of his strengths that has allowed him to put his best foot first, regardless of his disability. He once told his vocational counselor and mother that he "is just as normal as anyone else and will show everyone just what he can do." His patience became a big strength for him, although at first it was hard to understand how to approach and or talk with younger children. With the support Joseph has received from Justin and others he was able to understand and learn how to address the children and it has proven to be a great fit.

Joseph's daily tasks at the studio include cleaning the Dojo before class, along with the bathrooms, as well as vacuuming, dusting and sweeping. He also teaches two different classes, both classes being for kids younger than he is, 13 years and under.

Although Joseph had to work on his patience at first, he has grown tremendously in his teaching skills. Justin continues to support Joseph by encouraging him to keep improving, and to remember to teach the children rather than just tell them what to do, a skill he has learned in this position. Rather than being quick to anger when he is not understood, Joseph has learned to take things slowly and repeat himself without getting upset. When Joseph is not working at the studio he enjoys playing video games and reading. Keep up the great work Joseph, and thank you Justin for submitting this client success story!

Monday, August 26, 2019

Nathan Finds Work at a Local Brewery

Nathan Finds Work at a Local Brewery

Nathan and his vocational counselor, Justin, began working together in April of this year. Nathan has currently been employed in his position for two months. Before finding Nathan work with his current employer, Justin and Nathan met weekly to determine the field in which Nathan would like to find employment. Together, they then completed several situational assessments to determine the best fit for Nathan. Nathan and Justin came to the realization that Nathan liked working in a warehouse environment, so they completed an application for Three Notch'd Brewery, and the client received and accepted the job offer.

Initially, Nathan had to overcome some obstacles like working on his pace at the job, multi-tasking, as well as working on communication. Although, this wasn't an issue for long, he is a very hardworking and determined person so he was able to quickly improve on his speed, communication and multi-tasking. Nathan is responsible for packaging 6, 12 and 24 packs, along with palletizing the finished product and multi-tasking between loading the empty cans, bottle tops, and packaging.

Justin continues to support Nathan with his employment by motivating him to try new things and to also try new ways to increase his speed on the job. He also continues to support him by communicating with Nathan and his managers to ensure that Nathan knows his managers also support him.

In his free time, Nathan enjoys spending time with his grandchildren, going on walks and watching television. Keep up the hard work, Nathan, and thank you to Justin for sharing this client success story!

Monday, August 12, 2019

Alex Bakes Her Way To Employment

Alex Bakes Her Way To Employment

Alex was referred to the Choice Group by the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services in April 2016, and was paired with a Vocational Counselor. Alex had earned a diploma in 2016 from Ocean Lakes High School and participated in a Work Experience Program at the Oceana Commissary Bakery in Virginia Beach. She received assistance in applying for a paid position at the Commissary, and was hired as a Bakery Associate. Alex learned the position with help from her Vocational Counselor, and has worked part time for nearly three years, packaging portions of baked goods in support of the bakery.

Alex’s supervisor said that Alex does a good job, follows the rules regarding safety and proper procedures, and enjoys talking with her coworkers while she works. She receives high marks on evaluations from her supervisors, and her smile brightens the mood of all around her.

Alex has benefited from her supportive parents, helpful staff and management at the Oceana Commissary, and at 24 years old is moving toward independence. She has a second job as a helper in a local restaurant, which she enjoys as well.

Alex enjoys going to dances, visiting with family and friends, and is involved in many sports activities.  She participates in TOPS soccer two times a year and also does buddy basketball in the winter. She is also a member of an adult Capernaum young life group that meets once a week and a local ministry church group that also meets one day a week.  She works out, as well, with a personal trainer at home two days a week. We congratulate Alex on her accomplishments and her commitment to her work, social and personal activities!

Monday, July 22, 2019

James Welds His Way Into The Workforce

James Welds His Way Into The Workforce

James and his Vocational Counselor, Nancy, began working together in June of 2016, when they began looking for his current position. James began working at Hampton Sheet Metal in January of 2017 where he was the first client hired that utilized Supported Employment services. He had a welding certificate but no welding work experience. Nancy and James worked with his DARS Counselor using OJT (On the Job Training) which is a program where DARS will pay for the client's first few months of pay while they are in training, as a way to advocate to employers to give him a chance. Employers will not hire people without welding experience so they used OJT as a way to advocate for James to get an employer to give him a chance. After many months of contacting several employers, Nancy was finally was able to get Hampton Sheet Metal to take a chance on James with the OJT program. He ended up doing very well and they kept him on. James has received several raises over the years and has recently received a $2 an hour raise. He initially was hired as a Helper, but in the last year was promoted to Sheet Metal Welder, after passing their customized welding test. 
James is a hard worker and very dedicated and motivated to learn new things. He has an excellent work ethic and he strives for perfection. Although James struggles with internal stress and cognitive deficits, he has found great success in his current position. In the beginning, James had a limited work history and had to find a job on the bus line, which was an obstacle both Nany and James overcame with finding this employer. His managers say he has a great work ethic and has opportunities to continue growing there.
His daily tasks include shutting down the shop at closing, and also helping open the shop in the mornings. He does various jobs that include cleaning, helping others, welding, and finishing. James moved from LTESS/follow along into the Ticket to Work Partnership Plus program in May of 2017. Nancy continues to assist him in maintaining his employment and keeps monthly contact with him, while also occasionally checking in with his supervisors. James is a much happier, and a more positive person, since he has started working there and is now able to support himself. In his free time, he likes to ride mini motorcycles. James is also a painter and also enjoys playing online video games.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Keith Gets Cooking in The Kitchen

Keith Gets Cooking in The Kitchen

Keith and his Vocational Counselor began working together in early 2015. Keith has been employed with his current employer, a KFC/Taco Bell, going on four years now. 
In the beginning, his Vocational Counselor contacted employers in the area to see who was hiring. Keith was interested in both customer service and food service. Both he and his Vocational Counselor completed several applications which resulted in a job offer for a Lobby Attendant/Dishwasher position at Golden Skillet, but things didn't work out. After about a month and a half, the restaurant had to close due to poor business. At that time, Keith went back into job development, where together he and his Vocational Counselor were able to secure a new position as a Lobby Attendant at a local KFC/Taco Bell. Keith was later offered an additional responsibility of unloading the trucks. From there, Keith eventually tried fry cooking, where he continues to work full-time today. Initially, Keith was hesitant to accept more responsibility, but with encouragement from his Vocational Counselor and managers, he took on more cooking and food prep responsibilities. On top of being offered more responsibility, he also has received three raises since he began working for the company, with his last raise being $1.25 more an hour!
It was not all smooth sailing though, and he and his Vocational Counselor worked hard to get him to where he is today. The first obstacle was that Keith initially did not have a driver's license or transportation, so they had to find an employer that he could walk or bike to. He also did not have any previous work history. He was eager to work though, and they were able to find him a job near his home. Since he has been working at KFC/Taco Bell, Keith has been able to get his driver's license and now drives himself to work. Keith also now has four years of experience in food service doing a variety of tasks which is great for his resume and future job searching. He initially was a very shy person and had difficulty interacting with strangers, but since he has begun working, he is much more sociable and his confidence has improved greatly. He was used to be scared to try new positions at work, but with encouragement, he has taken on additional new tasks. 
Keith is very easy going, has a good sense of humor, and gets along well with his coworkers which makes him a great asset to the team. In the beginning, his job tasks included cleaning the lobby, restrooms, parking lots, and cleaning the kitchen area. He then moved on to unloading the truck and organizing, sorting and putting away the stock. Now Keith has moved onto only cooking duties and loves every minute of it. He also helps with the trash and general cleaning of the kitchen when necessary.
His Vocational Counselor visits him monthly, or contacts him and his managers, to see how he is progressing. His managers have been very supportive of Keith and his coworkers have stated how much they love having him around. 
Keith enjoys going to the library in his free time and also enjoys playing video games. Every other day Keith takes time to exercise and workout to keep up with his physical health. He also enjoys helping his grandma by going grocery shopping for her and helping her pay for their internet and electric bills.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Mark Makes His Mark

Mark Makes His Mark

Mark Stockton is employed as a Garden Helper at Windmill Heights Garden Center located in Culpeper, VA where he has been working for about 9 months during the seasonal months. Mark and his Vocational Counselor have been working together, through The Choice Group, for a little over a year now.
Mark began support by trying out different job positions through services called Situational Assessments. Through the assessments, it was determined that he enjoyed working outside with his hands as he has previous experience as a farm hand. Mark received supports through DARS and the WiOA program that allowed him to pursue his interests of horticulture/lawn care through the WiOA internship. After Mark had completed an internship with WiOA, Windmill Heights Garden Center brought Mark back for part-time support completing lawn care and gardening tasks. Mark enjoys completing routine tasks and being outside in the cooler weather working, and also has a very direct and friendly style of communication that allows him to be approachable by many.
Some obstacles that Mark overcame were communication skills and learning to ask questions, as well as advocating for himself. Mark continued to build his endurance from 4 hours a week to 12 hours a week which allowed him to become more ambitious to make a goal to work full-time in the near future. Also, due to seasonal positions in lawn care, he overcame the question of "what do I do now for 3 months during the winter?". With some support from his Vocational Counselor, he began completing volunteer work in the local community during the winter months to maintain his endurance and communication skills. Mark has grown as an individual, as well as a member of his community, by persevering through multiple obstacles and continues to build his confidence of overcoming future obstacles.
Mark's job tasks include weekly lawn care, trash collection, customer services, and horticulture tasks of planting different plants as assigned. He continues to improve his communication skills and will ask questions directly when needing guidance. Mark has also gained more self-confidence in himself and takes pride in his work.
His Vocational Counselor supports Mark by discussing and practicing different communication methods that work for him. He has built his endurance by scheduling breaks at different times throughout his shifts, as well as advocating for task lists for each shift as a compensatory strategy to help him learn the routine of tasks.
Mark enjoys spending time with his family and friends, as well as volunteering in the community, when he is not working. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Veronda, the Super Supervisor

Veronda, the Super Supervisor

Veronda Rooks-Price is a Supervisor at a call center in Hampton, where she has been employed for a little over 2 years. Nancy, her Vocational Counselor, began working with Veronda in 2014, when they initially found a position that did not work out, before finding her current job.   
DARS helped her get back into job development again, after losing her initial job. With the help of DARS, and Nancy, Veronda landed her current position where she has been successfully employed for over 2 years. 
In the beginning, Veronda was interested in Human Resources and Management positions at a call center. Veronda completed her own applications and went on interviews independently, and Nancy assisted her with finding job leads and following up on them to secure interviews.
Veronda currently makes a good supervisor because she is friendly and caring. She is a team builder and transformational leader and brings great energy to her team.
Before finding her current success, Veronda was feeling dejected after losing her first position due to a background check situation, so she struggled with staying positive initially. Now that Veronda is a survivor, she has completely turned things around. Aside from hitting a few bumps in the road, Veronda and her employer are very happy with the hire. 
Veronda manages productivity as her agents take customer service-based calls and is a great asset to the company. Her current position provides financial stability so that she is able to continue to do volunteer work with women and girls in the community. Since Veronda is in a supervisory position, she uses rewards as an incentive for her team. She has done things like having an appreciation tea for her team, a beach balls and balloons celebration, and consistently celebrates team member birthdays throughout the year. 
Nancy follows up with Veronda monthly to monitor stability, as well as annually to complete paperwork. Veronda has found solace in Nancy, and often calls her to vent or to talk job related ideas or concerns. 
Veronda is notably much happier as a person in her current position. She also states that, “her job has helped her to become a more patient person”, and that she now learns to focus more on the journey rather than the destination.
Her teammates make her feel special on a regular basis. For her birthday this past March, her team decorated her work bay in her sorority (Sigma Gamma Rho) colors and they all dressed in the sorority colors. They also filled her desk with various presents. She said that she was surprised and crying tears of joy all day long! 
Veronda does a lot of volunteer community work through her sorority for women and girls in the community, while also being a Rhoer Advisor. Rhoers are middle school and high school girls within the sorority and they have 7 in her chapter. In addition, Veronda is also in the process of finishing her dissertation for her PHD in Public Policy and Administration. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Kristin Is Keen On Her New Job

Kristin Is Keen On Her New Job

Kristin and Nancy began working together in June of 2018. Together they then found her a job at a local Pizza Hut in September of that year. Kristin was interested in customer service, food service or animal care so finding the position at Pizza Hut was a great fit. There are limited employers in her area so they looked at the few employers that were in her area and also branched out to Smithfield. Smithfield is the closest town with employers and that is where she found the job. 
Kristin is very friendly and easy going so it is easy for her to get along with everyone. Kristin is highly motivated to learn new things, which has paid off in her job as a crew member. She was hired as a Customer Service Representative, but now also serves customers and runs the register. 
Upon trying to place her in a job in her area, Nancy and Kristin faced a couple of other obstacles. Kristin relies on her mom to transport her at this time and has had a very limited work history. In the past, Kristin has had difficulty maintaining employment and finding a supportive employer. She found the perfect fit in Pizza Hut, and her manager Sonja has taken Kristin under her wing and given her a lot of opportunities to learn new things. Kristin is flourishing there and loves her job. Her manager always gives her great reviews when Nancy asks her to complete an evaluation form and is proud of the work she is doing. 
Kristin’s duties include, serving customers and taking orders in the dining room and also on the phone or assisting customers when they stop by for takeout. She also cleans and busses tables, washes dishes, takes down the salad bar, does some food prep, and restocks the buffet. Kristin is also responsible for running the register and cleaning the bathrooms, along with mopping.
Kristin receives follow along services; therefore, Nancy stops by monthly to check in on her and talk with her manager to ensure she is completing all her assigned tasks. Kristin has gained more confidence in herself and her abilities upon finding the position at Pizza Hut and has been able to save money towards purchasing a car. She says she is a much happier person having this job and a place to go regularly where people enjoy her company and good work.
In her free time, Kristin has her own beading business and goes to vendor shows to sell her work. Overall, Kristin is doing great in her current position along with running her beading business!

Monday, June 3, 2019

Derrick's Dream Job

Derrick's Dream Job

Nancy NcNamara began working with Derrick in 2016, the same year he landed the job in which he currently works. Three years ago, Derrick was looking to work in the food service industry in the kitchen. Together, he and Nancy found a job at Anna’s Ristorante: Pasta, Vino and Pizza. Not having prior work experience and living in Smithfield where there are limited restaurants, Derrick knew he would have to start out washing dishes, which he does not mind. Along with dishwashing he has also quickly moved up to food prep, fry cooking and sandwich/ sub making. Derrick is very easy-going and personable, everyone that meets him likes him. His coworkers love working with him and think he is a great asset to the restaurant. He is hardworking and dedicated to his job which has made it easy for him to take on more duties and responsibilities. Nancy visits him monthly to check on his progress and has noticed that he has become less shy and had opened up a lot since he started working at Anna’s. Along with taking on more responsibility, he has also gained speed in completing tasks. When Derrick is not working, he plays the organ and piano for his church every second Sunday of the month.

Sean Is A Supermarket Superstar

 Sean Is A Supermarket Superstar

Sean and Nancy began working together in 2014 where they were able to find him a position at a local grocery store. The store was then bought out, along with many others, and converted to a Kroger. Luckily, Sean was able to secure his position and began work at the Kroger in August of 2018. At the time, he was in the follow along program and Nancy was able to help him apply to the position at Kroger so he could continue working. Sean went into PES in 2018 so that Nancy could help him apply for the position and learn how they expected him to do his Courtesy Clerk position. Nancy helped him through this transition and then Sean went back into follow along.

When Nancy and Sean first started working together, he was interested in working in a grocery store, but there were only two in the area. Sean had to stay in the area for work because he relies on his parents for transportation, which was a bit challenging but ended up working out just fine.

Since beginning his work back in 2014, he has stated that “it has made me a more helpful person to others” and he has become much more sociable. Sean is easygoing and gets along well with others, he is able to efficiently and accurately perform his duties. Sean is very friendly and offers his help in various areas outside of his specific job duties when needed. Because he is so reliable, he is often asked to help out in other departments such as the produce department. Some of his job duties include, emptying the trash, collecting carts in the parking lot, bagging groceries and helping customers to their car. Sean also assists in cleaning the restrooms, reshopping items customers have not purchased, and stocking produce. Nancy continues to support Sean through follow along services by calling or visiting him at work once a month. She also continues to follow up with his managers to ensure that everything is going smoothly.

When Sean is not being a supermarket superstar, he enjoys watching action, adventure, fantasy and sci-fi movies. Sean also bowls weekly and is on a bowling league with his parents at the local air force base. If he is not watching a movie or bowling, you can find him going for long walks around his neighborhood or playing car racing and first and third person sci-fi games.

Monday, May 20, 2019

“Remember, I am Superman on crutches!”

“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.