Saturday, October 22, 2005

Morning in the Garden of Promise and Opportunity

Well OK, the book’s title is really called Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. This 1994 blockbuster novel by Tom Berendt is displayed publically just about everywhere you go throughout the tourist sections of downtown Savannah, Georgia. "The Book," as it is known in Savannah, has become synonymous with this beautiful and enchanting city of the Old South. I am told this novel and haunting photographic image of a young girl on its book cover has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors and millions in tourism dollars to Savannah since it was released more than a decade ago. A subsequent movie with the same title was released by Warner Brothers in 1997.
So Berendt wrote "The Book" on Savannah, huh? Well, earlier this week my colleague, Nancy Hoff, Rise, Incorporated’s Marketing Manager, and I visited a community service provider in Savannah that is rewriting its own story. And what an impressive story it is going to be! Our visit to Coastal Center for Developmental Services, Inc. (CCDS) was sponsored by the University of Massachusetts’ and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Training & Technical Assistance Program (T-TAP).
T-TAP is a collaborative project co-managed by UMASS and VCU in partnership with the Department of Labor’s Office on Disability Employment Policy (ODEP). Nancy and I had the honor to visit Savannah to provide training, technical assistance, and offer our encouragement to CCDS’ management and staff as a planned activity of T-TAP’s peer mentor program.
CCDS is a private, non-profit organization that serves 375 adults with developmental disabilities. Many of the agency’s participants have significant disabilities and experience complex life issues. CCDS employs approximately 75 staff and operates four major service programs that are accredited by CARF--The Accreditation Commission.
Presently, CCDS is engaged in writing a new chapter in its 30-year organizational history. This progressive service provider has established a new organizational vision that embodies sweeping changes, restructuring of its core program services, realignment of its management and staffing roles, expansion of its partnerships with local businesses, and increasing job placement outcomes for its participants with significant disabilities in Savannah’s local workforce. CCDS has developed an ambitious goal to place 60 individuals from its center-based programs into integrated jobs in the coming year. The agency's motto is 60 in 06!!
Here is what Nancy Hoff and I observed firsthand at CCDS early this week:
  • We met a seasoned and determined executive director in Faythe Merkert who is steering organizational change at CCDS with a strong emphasis on integrated employment through creative partnerships with Savannah’s business community.
  • We met a highly dedicated team of community employment staff led by Community Employment Services Supervisor, Lauri Dworzak; the CES team is working hard to transform organizational employment (sheltered employment) and day habilitation activities into integrated community jobs for a higher percentage of the agency’s participants;
  • We met a creative public relations manager in Jarrell Dickey; Dickey is working to transform the agency’s business image by remaking its brochures and literature, planning community education events, organizing business-oriented PowerPoint presentations, promoting focused newspaper press releases, and introducing other disability awareness strategies;
  • We met directly with program participants who truly want to work in community jobs and are helping CCDS staff to identify job placement goals based on their individual talents and potential contributions to Savannah’s workforce and economy;
  • We met with a dedicated team of business leaders who are serving on CCDS’ Business Advisory Board (BAB); the BAB offers guidance to the agency concerning its organizational change goals and becoming a viable business partner in Savannah’s emerging economy;
  • We met with Case Management Supervisor, Kathy Thomsan, and CCDS' team of case managers about the agency's change in service philosophy and customizing jobs for program participants with significant disabilities; the case management team supports this new vision by mobilizing internal resources and marshaling external support needed by participants to find and maintain person-centered job outcomes;
  • We visited several community work sites developed by CCDS’ outstanding Job Developer, Cindy Burns; we chatted with these employers about customized employment, negotiating job functions, and building natural job supports needed by their employees with disabilities;
  • We met with Chatham County's business manager who agreed to examine how the County can help to create customized employment opportunities for CCDS participants within its broad network of public jobs; in fact, Nancy helped to encourage the scheduling of a second meeting with Chatham County's department managers the following week!
  • We chatted with CCDS’ employment specialists, Ginger and Lorraine, who are crucial to delivering active job support and technical consultation needed by employers and their employees with disabilities;
  • We spoke with Wanda Bohnstedt, CCDS’ Chief Operating Officer of Chatham Industries (a subsidiary of CCDS), and other employees who are greatly impacted by the agency's planned shift to a community-based employment focus; everyone was enthusiastic about CCDS’ new vision and recognizes the need to work together to achieve better outcomes for all participants.

Has CCDS slain all of its dragons? Well, not exactly. The organization’s management is smart enough to recognize that broad-scale systems change objectives will require a blend of time, patience, and taking incremental steps. The job placement of people with significant and complex disabilities requires a convergence of public education, progressive and flexible policies, improvements in organizational infrastructure, and changes in service delivery architecture.

To illustrate, CCDS’ management is working to address and calm the fears of family members and others who worry that a community job placement focus will negatively impact on other areas of agency assistance such as transportation or socialization activities with peers. The management team is also addressing its need to realign existing staff duties as more participants make a successful transition to community-based employment. Logically, this transformation will demand increased staff training so the principles of job placement, customizing employment, and community job support are more accessible to all adults with complex disability challenges.

CCDS’ management team recognizes that its ambitious goals will be "derailed off the tracks" unless there is a significant commitment to public education and a business campaign to recruit job opportunities within its community workforce. To complicate matters, CCDS has been trying to manage a conversion of its organizational focus and services thus far without the benefits of new grant funding or "seed money" to help ease the transition to a broader network of integrated jobs in the community for all participants.

Organizational reforms and the pursuit of higher outcome standards is challenging work indeed. With that being said, CCDS is not intimidated by the progressive performance goals it has communicated very publically inside and outside the organization. CCDS is wise in recognizing that taking the first bold steps is a job half-done. And this organization has developed a comprehensive strategic plan to help guide its board of directors, management team, and professional staff to address identified obstacles standing in its way.

As colleagues, Nancy and I were privileged to share our views about what Rise is doing in Minnesota to deal with many of the same issues of concern. No, we did not have definitive answers for all concerns expressed, but we did share "what was working and not working" for us during our two day visit. We came prepared to conduct training and offer consultation on specific topics of high interest to CCDS’ management and staff. In this process, we also learned from CCDS managers and staff about what was working for them in Savannah, so we in turn could bring new ideas back to Rise. The mentoring protocol promoted by T-TAP is truly a two way street where everyone seems to gain from mutual sharing of information and experiences.

On Monday morning, Nancy and I took part in a guided tour of selected job sites where CCDS staff had made customized job placements. We really enjoyed meeting a delightful young lady who was placed as a "greeter" at a local Walmart store. On the surface, this job placement appeared completely illogical and defied all common sense. Why is this so? Who on this good earth would match a job opportunity demanding continuous public contact with a job seeker who only communicates with others via a digital voice recording device? This individual also uses a wheelchair, has no motor control of her extremities, and needs daily assistance with feeding, toileting, transportation, and job support? Who would support this illogical job match? CCDS–that’s who!! It's called customized employment.

The young lady with bright eyes and an engaging smile illuminated the entryway of the Walmart store. The greeter activated a number of pre-programmed voice recordings from a device attached to her wheelchair. She communicated responses to our questions from a digital voice recorder that was activated by a laser affixed to her headband. She controlled the recording device by carefully guided head movements. The greeter made it clear to us that she absolutely loved her job. And you know what? It didn’t take a rocket scientist to grasp the value she adds to the overall shopping experience of Walmart customers.

I doubt that this young lady fully understands how important she is to the very core of CCDS’ strategic goals. Every work day, thousands of Walmart customers are exposed to her abilities and work contributions despite her significant physical challenges. It's important for the public to see the talents of people with significant disabilities on display to raise awareness about the full range of possibilities. A former participant of CCDS' day habilitation program, this Walmart employee is now a success story showcasing its principles of customized employment and community inclusion. She offers a tangible hope that similar creative and negotiated partnerships with business leaders can result in customized jobs for many others.

I guess Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil will always be "The Book" on Savannah with its alluring charms and hidden mysteries of the historic South. However, Nancy and I left CCDS with a completely different story line about the charms of Savannah. We witnessed a progressive community that is working hard to build a new tomorrow for all of its citizens. We observed Morning in the Garden of Promise and Opportunity. And it sure read like a best-selling script to us.

For more information about Coastal Center for Development Services and its outstanding programs, visit their web site at http://www.ccds-sav.org/index.html. To learn more about T-TAP and its training opportunities for customized employment providers, visit their web site at http://www.t-tap.org/

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