“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 www.choosework.ssa.gov 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.