Program helps local people with disabilities make connections with businesses that can use their help
|Myles Kroll, 41, found a job with the Downtown Renaissance Association through Cascade Vocational Services, a nonprofit program started in 1992 that supports individuals with disabilities by connecting them with local employers.
To John Pandolfo and Jo Tomtan, a good employee is a good employee is a good employee.
Pandolfo is the manager for Hertco Kitchens in Ferndale, and Tomtan is the office manager at Hardware Sales in Bellingham. Both have worked with all sorts of individuals — including participants with Cascade Vocational Services (CVS) in Bellingham, a nonprofit program started in 1992 that supports individuals with disabilities by connecting them with local employers.
Sometimes, these connections turn into regular employment opportunities, and other times connections fall through. What seems to be the common denominator is that participants with disabilities are — at the very least — given a chance to be active members in the local business community.
The match game
Tomtan said her company started working with CVS in 2002, and since then it’s hired two part-time employees with disabilities through the program. Her company’s experiences with the Cascade participants were mostly positive, she said.
“It’s beneficial to have them and it’s beneficial for them to be working,” Tomtan said. “The experience was good. It was a good match.”
Finding and establishing a good match is a big key to success, according to Bill Bradley, an employment specialist with CVS. Cascade Vocational Services helps companies determine if they have jobs compatible with the skill sets of CVS program participants. Often, this includes a “carving out” process — taking components of work done at a business and breaking them off into simpler tasks.
“We could put someone in that one position for a short time during the day and that would free up your employees to do their jobs or do other things.” For instance, folding boxes at a pizza restaurant is a good example of a task many of his participants would likely be able to handle, he said.
Tomtan said CVS participants allowed her store’s salespeople more time with customers.
“If we have candidates that might fit the job, we would arrange to have them come in,” Bradley said. He said the participant candidate would try the job out with a job coach — working assessments that are always under the CVS insurance umbrella.
“If it’s a good fit, (CVS) will support the participant through the learning process,” Bradley said. Most of that support is paid for through federal and local governmental funding, he said. “If the participant has long-term government funding, then they will have long-term support (from Cascade).”
CVS can also help businesses obtain available tax incentives and credits and assist program participants with transportation issues, he said. Wages, however, are paid by the employer — either directly to the participant or sub-contracted through CVS. An example of this subcontracting would be the janitorial services CVS provides to various agencies and businesses in Whatcom County, Bradley said.
Companies, however, do not have to negotiate any of these funding and support issues — they are all handled by CVS, he said.
“We sort it out,” Bradley said. “The level of support we give to our participants is directly related to how well they can function.”
“I found there was a lot of support from Cascade Vocational,” said Pandolfo. This included everything from regular monitoring of participants to assisting with training to setting up the program. Pandolfo said he was approached by Cascade a couple of years ago about connecting with his company, which produces cabinetry. Currently, Hertco employs two participants in the program — one is a machine operator, and the other is a machine operator assistant. Both employees started at the beginning of this year, and both are doing well, he said.
“We’re pleased with the progress they’ve shown,” he said. “(These jobs) are entry-level positions that are repetitive and can be quite mundane, and we need somebody to do just the basics.” Such positions are sometimes difficult to find personnel for, he said.
“We’ve managed to get two individuals here that we are pleased with,” he said. “If they continue to perform their jobs effectively then they will be gainfully employed. Just the same as everybody else.”
A wide range of participants
The Handprint Arts gallery on State Street in Bellingham, puts an eclectic mix of arts and crafts on display. Homemade candles of all different scents and colors, stepping stones, jewelry and paintings fill the room. More than that, though, the gallery is a view into the potential of its creators — 30 percent of the products in this room were made by CVS participants — and several of these artists have their own businesses.
The gallery, which opened last year at the CVS building, is a unique bonding between local artists with disabilities and the community. It’s also an example of how individuals with disabilities can do more than just mundane work.
Recently, CVS started up a paper- shredding service at its building. For a nominal fee, companies and individuals can hire CVS participants to shred documents. Bradley said he hopes to have one or two local businesses sign up for the service on a regular basis. And just outside the doors of the CVS building are flowers and plants grown by CVS workers at Cascade Gardens in Lynden.
On-the-fly, creative approaches to creating participant opportunities are a necessity to perpetuating Cascade’s mission, he said.
“We have some people who come to us who are more highly skilled, but they have various life situations where they need support,” Bradley said. “We even have people with computer skills, clerical skills, and receptionist skills.”
This wide array of backgrounds speaks to the difficulty of defining what a typical participant profile is.
“It’s hard to say what a typical participant is,” Bradley said. “Usually, they have more than one disability.” This may range from mild developmental disabilities to severe mental retardation to Down’s syndrome, epilepsy, cerebral palsy and hearing deficiencies — as well as many disabilities in between. Participants may work anywhere from one to 40 hours, though the majority work fewer than 20 hours per week, Bradley said.
Myles Kroll is a 41-year-old, developmentally disabled participant with CVS. In March, he started a new job with the Downtown Renaissance Network in Bellingham as a street cleaner, working 32 hours per week. He said he moved to Bellingham in 1994, connected with CVS in 1995 and worked as a janitor at the Bellingham Federal Building for about 10 years. This year, he decided he was ready for a change, he said.
“I love it,” Kroll said of his new job. “(CVS) helped me a lot. Without Bill (Bradley), I wouldn’t have got this job in the first place. They are awesome.”
After living a lot of his life in sheltered homes, Kroll said his work helps him to feel independent.
“The people (at the Renaissance Network) are really nice, and they make me feel really important,” he said.
Companies who do decide to hire participants are often pleasantly surprised by what happens, he said.
“Your benefit is the public’s perception of your business, and the good feeling you have from just helping these people,” he said, adding participants are often very loyal. “Some of those kinds of jobs, it’s really beneficial to have someone with disabilities.”
Many of the participants are involved with janitorial work – such as vacuuming, sweeping and bathroom cleaning. Others may do light assembly work, food-prep work and dishwashing.
According to Kristin Nguyen, CVS program director, Cascade holds janitorial contracts with several local and federal government entities. These contracts include cleaning the Whatcom Transportation Authority buildings and the Lynden, Sumas and Blaine border stations. However, most working participants are employed by private companies, she said.
Everyone is welcome
Bradley, an employee with CVS for the past three years, said he realizes hiring a disabled person can be difficult at times for employers.
“It can be a little bit uncomfortable at first,” he said. “It may not be a huge financial benefit (to your company), but they can be good employees.”
Sometimes, there are challenges that need to be overcome, Tomtan said. When one of her CVS participants first started working, the participant’s first job assignment didn’t work out, so the employee had to be “switched around” until a good fit was found. Eventually, it was, she said.
“I don’t think we had any issues with either of the employees,” she said. “We’d be willing to do it again, if it was the right fit.”
Nguyen believes Cascade’s track record of success in matching employees is solid. When she started her job 10 years ago, the program had about 15 participants. Now, it has closer to 110, she said – although not all participants are working.
“Our ultimate goal is to get everybody individual jobs,” Nguyen said. “We just want to give disabled people the same opportunities everybody else has.”
Cascade Vocational Services is actually a part of Cascade Christian Services — although CVS operates autonomously. Bradley said CVS doesn’t market itself as a Christian organization because it doesn’t want to have the appearance of excluding non-Christian companies and participants.
“Anyone can be a client,” Bradley said. “Anyone can be a participant.”
Tomtan said she is happy her company took part in the program.
“It was actually kind of refreshing to see (the participant’s) pleasure in coming to work,” she said. “It maybe even rubbed off on other employees.”
Other programs serving people with disabilities:
Cascade is not the only program in Bellingham to do what it does —but it does serve the most disabled clients.
Cascade is one of the three programs in Bellingham that bring businesses and people with disabilities together.
Often, the programs will work with each other to help disabled participants make job connections, said Kristin Nguyen, program director with Cascade Vocational Services.
Cascade Vocational Services
Phone: (360) 647-9087
Address: 1611 N. State St., Bellingham
Who they are: A branch of Cascade Christian Services, a nonprofit organization. Cascade Vocational Services started in 1992.
Area served: Whatcom County
Approximate No. of disabled participants in Whatcom County: 110
Approximate No. of businesses served in Whatcom County: 30
Kulshan Supported Employment
Phone: (360) 676-9010
Address: P.O. Box 28806, Bellingham 98228
Who they are: A nonprofit organization started in 1987.
Area served: Whatcom County
Approximate No. of disabled participants: 83
Approximate No. of businesses served: 35
Service Alternatives for Washington, Inc.
Phone: (360) 756-6047
Address: 1313 E. Maple St., Suite 228, Bellingham 98225
Area served: Washington state
Who they are: A for-profit company started in 1982.
Approximate No. of disabled participants in Whatcom County: 35
Approximate No. of businesses served in Whatcom County: 30