While others may be grateful for a turkey dinner, a winning football team or a flight without delays this Thanksgiving, Charles Henry and Latorre Brooks are thankful for their jobs.
The men, who live with disabilities, had always wanted to find work so they could feel as productive as anyone else.
And thanks to a new partnership between the South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Department, Thrive Upstate, the Greenville Collaborative Action Network (CAN) and Greenville Health System, now they do.
Both work at Greenville Memorial Hospital — Henry in environmental services and Brooks at the Chik-fil-A.
“I’m happy to come in every day. It means a lot to me because I want to be more independent,” Henry told The Greenville News. “This is just a blessing.”
“I really enjoy it,” said Brooks. “This has been a really good experience for me. And I’m just excited that I have the opportunity.”
People want to work
Under the partnership, GHS identifies a position that would be a good fit. Then the service groups assess the duties and responsibilities of the position, locate qualified candidates, and prepare them for the job, said Jay Sanderson, director of talent acquisition and advancement for the hospital system.
“We always have jobs to fill at GHS. It’s a massive organization,” he said. “This is an opportunity to do the right thing, and these are individuals who want to work.”
About 20 people have been hired so far, primarily for jobs in food services, from the Starbucks to the hospital cafeteria, he said.
The partnership provides welcome job opportunities, since the unemployment rate for people with disabilities who are ready to work is about 33 percent, said Mike Teachey, lead facilitator for Greenville CAN, a coalition of service providers and stakeholders working to improving life for people with disabilities in the area.
These people face a host of barriers to independent living, from a lack of transportation to affordable and accessible housing, Teachey said.
Finding gainful employment is one of the biggest hurdles.
“There’s a huge gap there,” he said. “There’s not enough demand for employees who have disabilities.”
One reason is that employers often aren’t familiar with people who have disabilities and make unfounded assumptions about what they can and can’t do, Teachey said.
Some worry it would be costly to provide an accommodation, he said.
Others may have job descriptions that inadvertently leave out candidates with disabilities, such as being able to lift 50 pounds or requiring a driver’s license, even though neither is actually part of the job.
One local company, for example, required applicants to pass a math test, which had nothing to do with packing boxes at their distribution center, he said. Once that requirement was eliminated, it opened the door to good jobs for people with disabilities.
So Greenville CAN and the other service providers work to help employers address potential barriers and gain good employees, he said. The employees, in turn, gain self-respect, self-worth and pride.
“Our ultimate goal is for them to live as independently as they can,” said Teachey.
An amazing difference
As a job coach for the South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Department, Laura Best gets a little choked up when she thinks of the ways employment helps her clients.
One young woman with mental health issues had bounced between Florida and Alabama before ending up in Greenville, depressed and homeless, without family or friends. Or prospects.
“When she came to me … she was isolated from the community and unhappy with her circumstances,” Best said. “She wanted to be able to work on her limitations so she could get back into the workplace.”
Best helped her fill out a job application and go through the hiring process, and even started on the job with her to help her learn her duties.
She is now happily employed by GHS in food services.
“It’s amazing to see the difference it makes,” Best said.
“When I first met her, she hardly ever smiled,” she said. “Now when I see her, she has a huge smile on her face and she can’t stop telling me how much she loves her job.”
An untapped pool
The client also got help through the Greenville Mental Health Center, which found her permanent housing so she can now live independently.
“She’s now living in her own little cute home in Greenville and is just so thankful for the opportunities she’s been given,” Best said. “I’m sure in the future she’s going to start looking at opening more doors.”
SC Vocational Rehab works with thousands of clients each year who want to find work, become active in the community and thrive, just like everyone else, she said.
And Best helps prepare them for employment by teaching them how to work with their disability in a job setting, revising their resumes, going to employee orientation with them and continuing to mentor them once they’ve been hired to ensure their success.
They become dedicated and valued workers, she said.
“We hope that more opportunities become available … and our hope and goal is to continue to educate even more employers about working with those who have disabilities,” Best said.
“We have an untapped pool of candidates through Vocational Rehab and Thrive and other agencies.”
Henry, 46, takes care of the hospital’s waste streams from rubbish to soiled linens.
“I like it real good,” he said. “It makes me feel really good as a man. On the inside, I’m proud of myself.”
He likes the fact that he’s treated with respect, he enjoys his coworkers, and said they all work as a team.
He likes the pay too, he said. It helps him live independently.
“On my days off, I might go to the grocery store and get me some groceries and make sure my rent and my bills are paid,” he said. “That means a lot to me.
“I like to have my own money in my pocket,” he added. “I don’t want to be dependent on my family.”
Brooks, 27, said he enjoys cooking fries and chicken nuggets, the friends he’s made on the job, and the fact that his family knows he’s a productive member of society.
“I like to hang out with my family … and show them I can work,” said Brooks, who also volunteers at his church.
Though he currently lives with his mom, he’s saving up so he can get his own apartment, like any young man his age wants to have.
“I’m very independent,” he said. “The pay is great. And I want other people in my situation to have the opportunity like I did.”
‘It’s not about charity’
Teachey said that working side by side with people who have disabilities also goes a long way toward changing perceptions that limit how far they can go.
“Access is hard enough. And then throw in people’s assumptions,” he said. “When people see people with disabilities doing things, it improves things for everybody and removes some of the unfamiliarity. The demystification is huge.”
GHS is a pilot program, but those involved hope it can grow because all the service agencies have people looking for work, Teachey said. Moreover, he said, research shows people with disabilities are more likely to stay on a job longer.
“We’re hoping we can leverage the success at GHS so other companies can say, ‘We can do this too,’” said Teachey.
“Hiring people with disabilities is not about charity,” he said. “It’s about workforce development.”
Sanderson said having these employees on staff has improved the culture and productivity of the department and enhanced the team environment because everyone supports and helps each another.
“These are people who have a passion to work and be successful, and they are enjoyable people to work with,” he said.
“Overall, I consider it a huge success,” he added. “The sky’s the limit if they have the skill set. If they brought me 50 a week, I would hire them all.”
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