Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Unexpected Visitor


On Monday morning, I gathered the staff from our St. Cloud office to announce the unexpected news. Doris Illies, our branch Program Manager for the last eight years, had just resigned. Doris made a decision to move forward with her career and accepted an offer to join a firm in the private, for-profit sector.
The news was hard on all of us. I had worked closely with Doris for eight years building a program that I believe is second to none inside or outside of our agency. In 1997, Rise had launched Central Minnesota Works (CMW), a supported employment program serving adults with serious and persistent mental illnesses (SPMI) in a four-county region of Central Minnesota. CMW was not only a new venture for Rise, but we were introducing services within a new region of Minnesota. Our decision to begin a new program in St. Cloud was in direct response to a well-publicized closing of a large community rehabilitation agency in the area. I will spare my readers the sordid details. Suffice it to say, it was a challenging region to begin and operate a brand new program during this very difficult time period.
The scrutiny of our new program was beyond anything I have ever experienced in my 29 years of agency management. Despite the challenges, Doris Illies rose to the occasion and worked tirelessly to remove every barrier placed in her path. As outsiders, we had to build the trust of a reluctant community that had just experienced the failure of its primary service provider for adults with significant disabilities. From scratch, we had to find fiscal resources to build and operate a program for a target population that was already highly underserved in the region. And finally, we met some resistence in our efforts to implement a program based exclusively on fundamental principles of workforce integration and supported employment.
Despite national research supporting our view, many believed it was impossible to operate a program for adults with SPMI without the use of a center-based facility. Many in the community were hoping for a program that featured more traditional rehabilitation programs such as Work Adjustment Training or center-based extended employment. Instead, we chose to launch a supported employment program that featured rapid, individualized job placement with integrated employment as our cornerstone. And we welcomed all with a zero exclusion policy.
I can still see the hurt in Doris’ eyes on that day she shared this story with me. One afternoon, some local "experts" had openly attacked her philosophical views as the thinking of an inexperienced professional who just didn’t know any better. But Doris wasn’t operating on professional naivete, she was introducing employment practices based on evidence-based research. Despite the empty criticism, we went forward with our plan.
Absolutely nothing came easy for Doris except for one thing--the enthusiastic support of this community’s residents with SPMI. Not only did consumers embrace our "wild ideas," but they offered moral and technical support every step of the way. Consumer organizations such as the Consumer/Survivor Network (CSN) of Minnesota became a reliable source of energy and sustained us during our most challenging times.
In the following eight years, Doris quieted her critics. CMW and its talented team of staff exceeded everyone’s expectations. They tripled CMW's program size, budget, and number of direct support staff during a time of federal, State, and local budget restraints. In 2004, CMW provided job support to 320 people with mental health disabilities. This was an increase of 29% over the previous fiscal year. The program also set new records for its average hourly wage and average number of hours worked by consumers placed within Central Minnesota’s workforce.
CMW engaged competitive employment and career ladder opportunities for its participants through a blend of job placement, customized employment, self-employment, and microenterprise strategies. Our office collaborated with CSN on a national grant demonstration to educate more consumers with SPMI about the importance of working to their mental health recovery. We began a new supported employment pilot with the Veterans Administration’s Medical Center (VAMC) in St. Cloud to assist unemployed military veterans with mental health disabilities. We partnered with the Stearns-Benton Workforce Center to launch a Disability Program Navigator initiative, thereby increasing connections to services and job placement outcomes for One-Stop customers with mental health disabilities.
CMW staff introduced a job placement service track in support of local welfare recipients with mental health disabilities. They coordinated linkages with Central Minnesota Mental Health Center to connect supported employment opportunities for unemployed individuals served in local adult day treatment programs. Under Doris’ leadership, CMW developed linkages with Minnesota Rehabilitation Services, high schools, colleges, and other post-secondary programs to increase access to job placement for youth and adults with disabilities. Our office became an employment network under the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Ticket-to-Work program so we could assist beneficiaries with their job placement goals. And finally, CMW recruited ordinary citizens to become more actively involved in its goals through AmeriCorps so more unemployed adults with disabilities could go to work.
For her part, Doris became actively involved in professional trade associations to keep apprised of new and emerging service practices we could infuse into our programs in St. Cloud. She assumed a leadership position with the Minnesota Rehabilitation Association (MRA) and was eventually elected as its President. She was an active member in MRA’s Job Placement Division (JPD) and was elected to serve as President of JPD for the National Rehabilitation Association (NRA). Doris was honored with a national award for her outstanding service to both NRA and JPD. Also, she was active with local Chambers of Commerce and CommUnity, the adult mental health initiative serving the Central Minnesota region of Minnesota. There is no question about it, Doris became a respected champion of integrated employment and self-dependency for Central Minnesotans with significant disabilities.
For these reasons, the announcement of Doris’ resignation was a surprise that rocked the foundation of our branch office. On this early Monday morning, I had the unpleasant job of sharing the news and offering my encouragement to our team. I extolled on the virtues of staying focused and working together to ease the office’s transition through this difficult period of change. I reminded the team about its past accomplishments. I spoke about the importance of their shared commitment to vision, mission, and program excellence. As I searched for the right things to say, my "Win One for the Gipper" monologue was interrupted by a knock at our door.
Now everyone’s eyes and attention were focused on the intruder. Someone in the group said: "It's Jeremy." A young man in his mid-twenties, Jeremy entered the front door to an awaiting audience. He was casually dressed in black shorts, a monogrammed t-shirt, and was sporting the widest ear-to-ear smile ever.
You know, it may have been purely coincidental. Or, it may have been impeccable timing by our guest. Further, he may have been sent as a divinely inspired messenger. I will never know. However, this unexpected visitor interrupted our gloomy staff meeting and took complete control of our agenda.
Jeremy made the trek to our office to pay a special tribute to Eric Beager, a Rise AmeriCorps member, who had been instrumental in helping him secure a competitive job. He was holding and extending in his hand an unwrapped box of golf balls. With the assembled audience of staff watching on, he offered the gift as an expression of his thanks to Eric for all of his support. It was a touching moment indeed. We all watched on with pride as Eric, somewhat embarrassed, searched for the right thing to say.
Eric told Jeremy that he could not accept a gift as it was against Rise’s policy to do so. However, he shared publicly that he really appreciated his thoughtfulness and wished him the very best in his new job. Eric shook hands with the young man who had apparently used a portion of his first paycheck to purchase the gift as a token of his thanks. Spontaneously, we all applauded. It was a wonderful opportunity for all of us to share in Jeremy’s excitement about landing his new job.
After shaking hands with Eric, the unexpected visitor made his way out through our front door. For a moment, we all sat there looking at each other, fully digesting what we had just witnessed. I broke the silence by saying "Wow, I promise you guys, I did not script that!"
You know, he seemed a bit disappointed that Eric could not accept his gift. However, Jeremy had left behind a much larger gift for our St. Cloud office on this memorable day. The purity of his excitement and sincerity of his appreciation made all of us stop and recognize the impact of this important work we do. Without saying it, Jeremy had communicated by his actions that our purpose was far greater than any one of us in the room. The gift that Jeremy left behind will travel much farther than any golf ball.
On Monday, June 13, 2005, our office in St. Cloud will begin a new chapter. CMW will be co-managed by a team of two very talented and tenured Rise staff. I have no doubt that Amy Moog, our new Program Coordinator, and Derek Haug, our new Service Team Leader, will build upon a foundation of excellence laid brick-by-brick by their former colleague and mentor, Doris Illies.

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