Sept. 17, 2006 – Imagine one day your life changes dramatically: You are injured in an accident that leaves you wheelchair bound — and your job involves standing.
This is not the end of the road; it is a new beginning.
And that's what Work-Able is all about.
Since 1989, the agency has been helping people with disabilities join the territory's workforce.
For the last 13 years, Work-Able Executive Director Gwendolyn Powell has overseen the agency. Powell is a tall woman with shoulder-length locks, a welcoming smile and a take-charge attitude. "We want to help people get the opportunities that are out there," she says. "We are basically an employment agency, a workforce development agency."
She says many local businesses take part in the program, including Banco Popular, Pueblo Supermarkets, Hovensa, Roy Schneider Medical Center and MSI building supplies.
"For instance," she says, "we placed a young man at Banco Popular. At first, he was counting coins, and now he is a full-fledged teller. And he is deaf," she says. "If he needs assistance, a nearby teller will explain to the customer that he can't hear. He gets along fine."
Employers are enthusiastic about the program, from which they stand to benefit in several ways. Aside from diversifying their staffs, there are tax advantages: a work opportunity tax credit of up to $2,400; a small business tax credit — which helps small businesses cover the cost of making their business accessible — up to $5,000; and an architectural transportation tax deduction of up to $15,000 for expenses incurred to remove physical barriers for persons with disabilities at the workplace.
Leon George, Pueblo Supermarkets manager on St. Croix, gives the program a big "thumbs up." He wrote the agency, "What we have learned is that employees with disabilities can sometimes be more dependable, loyal and productive their presence adds a new dimension to our work environment. We would recommend that nonparticipating employers take advantage of this untapped labor market."
Powell points out other advantages to hiring people in this largely untapped job market: "We go to the job with the person and help train him or her, if that is necessary. If it looks like it isn't a good fit, the employer is not obligated. On the other hand, he is getting a trained employee, who has been pre-screened."
Powell says October is the agency's big month: October is Disability Awareness Month, and Oct. 18 is nationwide 2006 Disability Mentoring Day.
"We are doing something a little different this year," Powell says. "Instead of soliciting for mentors to take job-seekers to different employers, we are asking parents to take their own children to work with them. We want to get more parents involved in the program."
The day will be celebrated Oct. 18 on St. Thomas and Oct. 19 on St. Croix.
The Disability Mentoring Day program originated in the White House in 1999 with less than three dozen local students participating. Now the day is hosted by the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), the nation's largest cross-disability membership organization. On the national level, Andrew J. Imparato, AAPD president and CEO, in this year's advance promotion material wrote, "The day is a centerpiece of AAPD's efforts . Last year more than 13,000 'mentorees' benefited from participation in this career-exploration program, and the number is anticipated to grow significantly this year.
"DMD provides important job-shadowing opportunities and career exposure to young people and job-seekers with disabilities. For many, this is their first chance to consider their future career paths the diversity of the program has evolved greatly as a result of the on-the-ground creativity of the local coordinators who design the programs in their regions."
Jesusmay "Jessie" David walks through the office back to his computer. He asks us to come see some pictures. "Jessie is a summer intern," Powell says. "We are trying to get the funding to keep him on permanent staff right now."
David worked at the agency's Summer Institute, which is a summer camp for disabled youth. "It is a six-week program where the youngsters learn employability skills, life skills and get some work experience, for which they receive a stipend. They are referred by the Human Services Vocational Rehabilitation office," Powell says.
The summer program is limited to six students, whose disabilities range from deafness to being learning disabled.
And, they have field trips. This summer's big excursion was a trip to St. Croix's Buck Island.
"Here are the pictures from our trip," David says, pulling up dozens of digital pictures of youngsters who look like they're having the time of their life — snorkeling, diving and playing in the water, while showing off for the camera. "That was so much fun," says David, "the youngsters really loved it."
Powell says, "We work primarily with adults that are referred from the state Vocational Rehabilitation agency and youth who are in transition. We refer them to Human Services, the Department of Education, and the Department of Labor."
The agency also conducts an out-of-school time transition program to help students from the special education classes learn what to expect after they graduate. "We teach them the skills to learn to be independent and responsible and productive," Powell says. "The students do what's called 'job shadowing' where they follow an employee through his or her normal day and see how things get done. And we take them to tour businesses or industries where they think they might like to work."
The programs are "person centered," Powell stresses. The agency's services are tailored to the individual needs of each participant.
Powell works with a small staff of six – three on St. Thomas and three on St. Croix. And the agency accomplishes a lot with the limited staff. She is hoping to get additional funding for a larger staff. The funding in part comes from government grants from Housing and Urban Development, the Community Development Block Grant program and the Department of Human Services Vocational Rehabilitation and Foster Care programs.
Powell says the agency also accepts individual or corporate donations. To inquire, contact Powell at 776-3700.
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