By Lindsay Seagraves/News Editor
Dawn Beavers, supported employment specialist for Darden Rehabilitation Foundation in Gadsden, has pounded the pavements looking for employers who will hire people with disabilities.
“I get out of my car and I go in and beg,” she says.
According to Darden Rehabilitation, statistics show that persons with disabilities are above average employees who take pride in their work and are consistent and reliable.
Darden Rehabilitation is a non-profit community rehabilitation program serving Etowah, DeKalb, Marshall, Cherokee and St. Clair counties, which contracts with the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services to provide services like Supported Employment, a program designed to meet the needs of individuals with limitations that affect their ability to independently function in employment settings.
That’s where Beavers comes in. Her job is to help those with limitations get a job, and not just any job, but one that is meaningful.
“I want to get them a job they will enjoy,” she says.
Beavers, a self-contained special education teacher for 27 years, wanted to do something related to the disability field when she retired.
At Darden, she helps clients with disabilities participate in the competitive labor market and provides ongoing support once they are placed in an employment setting.
“It’s my thing,” she said, “I feel like I get to see what they do now that they’re all grown up.”
Before being interviewed by potential employers, Beavers gets her clients ready for their future job by helping them with job applications and interview skills. She also does a situational assessment of their ability to complete certain job tasks. This assessment takes place in an open work environment and determines the client’s strengths and weaknesses for the best job placement.
This means Darden Rehabilitation Foundation doesn’t just look for jobs for their clients but actually works the jobs with them.
“I job shadow with them everywhere; it gives me respect for jobs I never even gave thought to,” Beavers explained, like one job she said has even followed her since shadowing there.
“I told my daughter at the movie theatre not to leave a mess,” she exclaimed.
Beavers understands the challenges of being a movie theatre usher because she helped clean up after-movie messes while job shadowing with Darden client Cody Ellzey, now employed with Premiere Cinemas.
Ellzey was hired by Premiere Cinemas Manager Ada Woodward about a month ago. When asked what prompted her to give Ellzey a shot she responded, “Just being a fair human being.”
Beavers says it’s often hard to find employers who will hire her clients, for reasons such as high unemployment rates to just not giving them a chance.
Ellzey, however, proved to Premiere Cinemas they not only made the right choice, but that he can do his job just as well as – if not better than – any other employer, as told by his coworkers.
Matthew Moreland, shift lead at Premiere Cinemas for eight years, says there has never been a reason to treat Ellzey any different from other employees. “I make sure his work is up to the same standards. We have to go behind all new employees once or twice – but he’s doing just as well as any other new employee who starts here,” he says. “He told me his first job hadn’t treated him well, but I guess in regards to his training at Darden, he has jumped right in here.”
Moreland says Ellzey fits right in with the rest of the Premiere Cinema bunch. “When he first started he was fairly polite to begin with. Then he opened up after the first day and has been telling stories and sharing movie interests just like everyone else.”
Ellzey says he loves his new job at Premiere Cinemas and that it’s a lot better than sitting at home, as he did before becoming a participant of the Supported Employment program.
After prying him away from his task of cleaning the entrance doors to the cinema lobby, Beavers asked if it made him feel important and good about himself to have a job. He replied with a wholehearted, “yes.”
Another Darden Rehabilitation client was given a shot at employment, and has taken pride in making Red Lobster’s busiest lunch hours run smoothly for the past 10 months.
“I do mainly salads. I get it done for other waiters and waitresses and I get them out quick,” Colton Behr said as he described with full emphasis his significant task of building lunch salads.
He showed exactly how he makes salads behind the scenes at the kitchen salad station, and took orders as quickly as they came in with full attention.
“Colton has come out of his shell to employees and customers. He’s friendly, 100 percent dependable and the crew here has grown to love him,” says Manager Larry Mason. “We like to give chances to people who are looking for work, and when Dawn brought him in he was prepared for his interview and interested in the job. We decided to take a chance and have really liked having him.”
Colton was all smiles while working, and talked about the warmness he’s experienced from Red Lobster co-workers since starting his job there. “They made a party for me when it was my birthday,” he said.
Winn Dixie in Rainbow City also employed a Supported Employment client, and manager Joel White says he’s doing great. “We had the opportunity to hire Thomas not because of any special requirement, just because we had an open position. He’s a good guy, he works hard and I talk to him just like any other employee. If I tell him to go get the buggies he’s always ‘yeah Boss, I’m going to do it!’”
Thomas Martin has been working with Winn Dixie for 7 months now. “I just love this job and everybody here really. I wouldn’t change a thing.” Martin said. “Of course I bag groceries, take them out to people’s car for them when they need it. I bring in buggies and even do go-backs,” which Martin explained as the system used to put grocery items back in the original spot when they are misplaced.
When Beavers asked Martin if he liked his co-workers he replied, “Oh yes. I love em’.”
Martin said of his preparations to find employment with Darden, “I had to keep clean, keep my nails cut and get a drug test.” Beavers said she stays on all of her clients to keep their hygiene up and come to work presentable.
When Martin isn’t working his almost 20 hour per week job at Winn Dixie, he stays at his group home and attends the Smeltzer Educational Center in Gadsden. The group home makes sure he gets to and from work, any time of day or night.
White said of Thomas’ employment at Winn Dixie, “It’s good for the community, good for him, and good for Darden. When another position comes available, we want to support the community, support the program and hire another person from there.”
Beavers said looking back, she would have taught her special education students more about preparing for the work place. “This is the real world, this isn’t school. You don’t get suspended; you don’t get time out. You mess up and you’re out.”
She said she has even talked to her previous special education co-workers about things they can do to prepare their students for future employment. “The Special Education Department recently bought a cash register for instructional purposes,” she said with pride.
Situational Assessment sites that have allowed Darden Rehabilitation to use their businesses include Gold’s Gym, Eagle Rock Thrift Store, Books-A-Million, Central Valley Veterinary, Ingles Market, Family Care Center Thrift, Gadsden Mall, The Laundry Room, Etowah County Humane Society, Northpark Baptist Church, Etowah County Circuit Clerk’s Office and Food Giant Groceries.
Other employers that have given jobs to Darden Center clients include Eagle Rock Thrift Store, TJ Maxx, Cash Saver Grocery Store, Liberty Tax Service, McDonald’s on 12th Street, and Wal-Mart in Centre.