Forum House, Viability-Making Lemonade Out of Lemons
With all the uncertainty that COVID presented, WMEC offered partners the opportunity to come together on a weekly basis. Together we shared COVID updates, stories of job seekers not only maintaining employment, but also gaining employment, and overcoming obstacles, all the while establishing best practices in employment services through the Pandemic. When asked about WMEC partners who were able to pivot during COVID, Forum House immediately came to our mind! Forum House never stopped employment services! They consistently reported having job seekers looking for work, spearheaded discussions with WMEC partners around new employment opportunities that were a result of COVID! These Job Developer Networking (JDN) check-ins were instrumental and motivational, maintaining a silver lining and focusing on meaningful employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities to continue to work, but do so safely! Please take a moment to hear from our partner, Forum House, how they saw COVID as an opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade:
To say that March of 2020 was an abrupt change to the employment landscape is a gross understatement. Layoffs, business closings, testing for COVID-19 with every cough or sniffle, fear of exposure and the 14-day quarantines, COVID-19 quickly changed everyday life in each town and city in Massachusetts. It was Lemons as far as the eye could see. The landscape for employment in general was decimated in a matter of days. For Forum House, a program of Viability, Inc, 12 vocational rehabilitation slots (transitional employment) were reduced to a single slot. Permanent employment was reduced by 80%. Members were laid off, given leaves or terminations. Our members were afraid to go back to their positions as restrictions lifted starting in early summer. The world of employment had changed, so our program had to change to continue working the clubhouse model, recognizing work as a vehicle to recovery.
Early in the pandemic, Forum House took an active rather than reactive approach to employment services. As we continued to attend JDN meetings, we heard from partners ways they were continuing to connect with their job seekers virtually and incorporated it into our member outreach. Job search, resume writing, and interview coaching were all done via phone calls, emails, and/or through various virtual platforms, including Zoom. This helped us stay connected with members about their situation, their future and exploring ways to create a balanced and fulfilling life that includes work but doing so safely and strategically.
Featured in a photo along with this article, one clubhouse member, Rachel Desmond took time to focus on education. Through WMEC, we learned that the Peer Specialist Training was being offered virtually for the first time! Rachel not only completed the program, but also earned her Certified Peer Specialist certificate. We are happy to report that Rachel has gone on to a rewarding career with Wildflower Alliance. Three other Forum House members started positions doing peer support work, one working 100% remotely. Furthermore, one of these individuals started a new weekly Member Support Group, which is well attended and a great support to our efforts to help members.
As restrictions lifted and the Forum House reopened to its members, everyone worked together to help remind each other of safe use of PPE. Members engaged in everyday sanitizing and cleaning of the units and workspaces expanding their skill set while working in the club and establishing transitional skills to find paid work in the community. Return to work or finding each new job was celebrated.
As discussed in multiple WMEC JDN meetings, COVID-19 actually created new employment opportunities! At Behavioral Health Network, 4 additional hours to clean and conduct COVID-19 related sanitizing, shifted a temporary, transitional position, to a supported permanent position. Two, 20-hour per week, COVID-19 sanitizing positions opened at the local YMCA. Additionally, two permanent positions were created for COVID-19 related lunch distribution at the Westfield Public Schools.
While COVID has been our Lemon Tree, it has, in the long run, made Forum House stronger, closer, and more determined to promote recovery. Before COVID-19, 20% of our membership were employed in Supported or Independent work. Today we celebrate 25% of our membership are employed in permanent positions.
We have Christine and Erin, the network of WMEC partners, and the Collaborative, in general, to thank for keeping our Lemon Tree grounded, a true anchor in the storm! Forum House staff and members took advantage of countless hours of virtual trainings, professional development opportunities, skills workshops, and job leads offered through Basecamp. For us, JDN meetings were a place to connect with our colleagues to not only share challenges, but also support each other and celebrate the wins as well! Increased support, and collaborative working relationships, truly is the sugar we needed to make lemons into lemonade! As a result, we were able to continue to focus on developing relationships in the clubhouse and offering membership daily, all the while staying true to the mission and keeping focus on employment, paid or unpaid, as the vehicle to recovery.
Never easy but always worth the struggle, we are enjoying the lemonade at Forum House.
Paul Gives J. Polep Distribution Services his "Stamp" of Approval
The DEI VII (Disability Employment Initiative) grant provided a great employment opportunity for youth with disabilities via the On-the-Job Training (OJT) program. There was no guarantee of a permanent hire after the trial period, during which MassHire Springfield under this grant, was able to pay a significant portion of the trainee’s hourly wage.
"It was a great opportunity to work with Paul on job development through the DEI VII grant. He was the perfect candidate for the OJT opportunity, as he exemplifies dedication, hard work, and tenacity. Paul followed through on every assignment and had a positive demeanor. He will excel in his position." By Richard Berrena, MassHire Springfield Career Center.
Paul enrolled in the DEI VII grant just before COVID hit. He had no previous work experience but was open to an OJT opportunity. As a result of collaborative efforts between MassHire Springfield, WMEC, and employer partner, J. Polep Distribution Services, Paul trained to be a Cigarette Stamping Machine Operator, during 2nd shift throughout the pandemic. Paul has demonstrated the skills necessary to properly operate 2 different brands of Stamping Machines which Stamp 8 different states.
J. Polep Distribution Services welcomed Paul to the team in late February 2020. When they interviewed Paul, he mentioned that he was in college studying architecture at Springfield Technical Community College and he was excited to get an opportunity to work hard and learn their operation from the ground up. His manager, Diane stated that when she interviewed him, he was so eager that he stopped by the facility 3 times to ensure he was still in the running for the position. Diane said she knew then that he was the right guy for the job!
Paul said he felt he connected with Diane and Scott (Lead) the most on the team. Paul said, “People need to be ready to work when they come here!” enthusiastically and he has jumped at the chance to learn new things. After several months working in the stamping area, Paul expressed an interest in learning how to select orders for cigarettes. Paul was trained in Order Selection and has had a phenomenal accuracy rate.
Despite COVID, not only was Paul successful during the OJT, but he also received outstanding work reviews, and has become a great addition to the J. Polep Distribution Family.
Community Establishes Memorial Scholarship in Honor of Jack Conroy
Who was Jack Conroy? Jack Conroy, an Agawam resident, was a man who dedicated himself to the community. He came from very humble beginnings, so when he finally had the things he didn’t have growing up, he wanted to give to others. Jack, a police officer and carpenter, taught inmates general carpentry and other trade skills, so they would be able to transition back into the community with a set of skills to increase their opportunity for employment. He looked for the best in everyone, and always advocated for the underdog. He exuded compassion for individuals with disabilities. The Conroy family lost their father in 2018, and wanted to honor their father and keep his legacy going.
The Jack Conroy Memorial Golf Tournament started in 2018 to raise funds to go toward and support the community. It is with great honor that the Conroys, Jack's wife Mary Ellen, his children Colleen, John, Maureen, Matt, Susan, Erin and their partners proudly presented the Western MA Employment Collaborative with just under $5000 to go to support job seekers with disabilities seeking training in the trades, and other opportunities to increase their ability to find employment.
While this scholarship fund was announced during WMEC's Winter All Partner Event in January 2020, the COVID pandemic has since greatly impacted the work WMEC partners are doing to stay connected with their job seekers. Some job seekers have decided to suspend their job search and instead use this time to consider training programs and/or other opportunities for building and growing their skill sets. WMEC looks forward to receiving applications from those job seekers who may benefit from this scholarship opportunity!
Read Jenny's story about her passion for her work and the impact she is making on The Center School and their students
Jenny is living her dream of working with kids! Throughout the time she’s been with Riverside Industries Inc. (RSI). RSI is a Partner of Western Mass Employment Collaborative (WMEC). Jenny has always expressed a desire to work with children. RSI’s Job Developer, Becky McDonald spotted a WMEC job lead featuring a lunch monitor position at the Center School in Longmeadow MA and approached Jenny with the opportunity. Jenny couldn’t wait to apply! Throughout the process, RSI staff, staff from the Center school and Jenny’s residential facility collaborated to coordinate the accommodations to make this perfect opportunity work for Jenny.
The Center School welcomed Jenny onto their team. Jenny gives 100% every day. She works three lunches, which would be exhausting for anyone, but handles her job with grace. The staff, teachers, students and principal have also shown her a token of their appreciation for all her hard work, by giving her a Cardinals sweatshirt. Jenny even worked on her birthday this year, and all the students stopped lunch to sing happy birthday to her in the cafeteria, resulting in tears of joy at this celebration!
The students are very fond of Jenny, showing interest in the device that she uses to communicate, and think it is pretty awesome! Staff have even observed a young male student, whose communication historically has been limited, initiate interactions with Jenny, in her wheelchair, with her communication device, and opening up to communicate with her.
While Jenny gets to work every day at a job she had long hoped for, she also exemplifies true inspiration overcoming barriers to reaching her dream. Jenny absolutely loves her job and her employer and coworkers at the Center School know they can count on Jenny to get the job done!
Aiden Finds Employment, Quickly Gets a Promotion, and Gives Back to His Clubhouse
Aiden is a member of Odyssey House, a clubhouse operated by Viability, Inc., a WMEC partner. Aiden joined Odyssey House with the goals of finding a job, working to obtain housing, and socializing with others at the clubhouse. Through a WMEC job lead, Aiden started a new position as a host at Applebee’s. Soon after, he received a promotion!
In his own words, Aiden says “what I like most about my job is that I work with a team and that I have the chance to work on problem solving. I like to make people smile, because to be honest, there are not a lot of people who really work at putting a smile on someone else's face. I make special connections with everyone who comes in, while at the same time being professional. It also puts my judgment to work because we serve alcohol, and if one of my staff suspects someone is over-served then the judgment is with me to confirm or deny that they have been over served. I take the safety of the guests very seriously and I would lose my job if I let someone drive while impaired.”
Aiden has continued his relationship with Odyssey House, as they have been a secondary resource for when situations come up, and he intends on keeping them as a resource for help. He says “they have been doing just as much as my job coach does, without the job site visits.” He is even helping out at Odyssey House by hosting open mock interviews for other members. In addition, he recently met with Governor Baker about housing for individuals on the Autism Spectrum.
Tyler Builds Job-Readiness Skills through the CVS Health Training Program
Tyler is a graduate of the CVS Health Training Program offered by the Regional Employment Collaboratives. When he was offered the opportunity to take part in the training program, Tyler’s goals were to learn customer service skills and learn how to communicate as a member of a team. He also wanted to gain more experience using a cash register in a retail setting. He describes his experience in the training as “very educating and fun, and it gave me the skills I needed to start my job.”
The training program provided him with an internship in a CVS store. Upon graduating, Tyler was encouraged to apply for a position within that store by employment specialists at WMEC and Viability, Inc. He had an interview soon thereafter and was hired on the spot. He credits the training program and employment support in his ability be job-ready. He says, “I enjoy everything about my job. The thing I love most is interacting with my customers and also working the register. I don’t even consider it a job most of the time.”
In addition to finding success in his new job at CVS, Tyler has offered to return to the next CVS Health Training Program session, to assist with the Soft Skills portion of the training program!
Sisters Gain Confidence and Skills through On-the-Job Training
Jessica and Ariana are sisters who were referred to our CVS Training Program through the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board. Over the course of the training program, the sisters gained valuable retail skills such as cashier training, inventory management, and customer service experience. In addition, the soft skills training workshops provided them with interpersonal and communication skills for interacting with the public in a retail job.
During the internship, they continued to build their retail skills by learning how to manage inventory more in-depth. They benefited from routine feedback from the program on their specific strengths and areas for growth. Their confidence has been boosted and their enthusiasm for entering the workforce has increased tremendously! As CVS Training Program graduates, the sisters are now looking forward to obtaining employment in a retail setting.
Interview Accommodations and Collaboration Lead to Employment at MGM Springfield
A job developer from our partner agency, Viability, Inc., contacted WMEC and conveyed that an individual served by her program was very interested in working for the new MGM Springfield casino. The individual and the job developer were both very excited, since it had been arranged for him to attend a group interview for a kitchen steward position.
However, both the individual and the job developer were hesitant regarding the group interview setting. As the individual had social anxiety, both he and the job developer were concerned that he might not interview optimally within a group.
Through WMEC's relationships at MGM, our Employer Liaison was able to convey this concern with the group responsible for arranging interviews, and scheduled a private interview for the individual served. He ultimately secured a job as a kitchen steward, and is very excited to be employed by one of the newest, largest employers in the region!