Monday, April 03, 2006

A Conversion Story

This past week, I had an interesting lunch meeting with a colleague and friend of mine, Becky Bazzarre from Lifetrack Resources in St. Paul, Minnesota. Becky and I have been collaborators and co-managers of a unique supported employment program called the Minnesota Employment Center (MEC) for Persons who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing for more than 13 years. My employer, Rise, Incorporated, and Lifetrack are organizational partners and jointly run MEC as a free-standing interagency program for Minnesotans with significant hearing loss and related job barriers. Together, our agencies have created customized and supported employment outcomes for more than 600 deaf and hard of hearing adults through MEC since its inception. After concluding our quarterly budget and management meeting for MEC, Becky and I decided to go to lunch and catch up on other matters.

As our Chinese dinners arrived to the table, I asked how Becky how her conversion was coming along. No, Becky isn’t a recent religious convert or zealot. Nor is she a member of a mystical cult that I am aware of. And I am absolutely certain she did not order “kool aid” to go along with her fried rice menu selection. Actually, I was checking in with Becky about Lifetrack’s progress in converting its center-based employment (CBE) program to supported employment in the workforce for its participants with disabilities.

Before I pass along Becky’s news, let me share with you a little bit about Lifetrack Resources. When Lifetrack opened its doors in 1948 it incorporated under the name of St. Paul Rehabilitation Center. This progressive organization changed its name to Lifetrack Resources in the year 2000 to better reflect the changing times and focus of its many programs. Lifetrack is a 501 (c) 3 private, non-profit organization and recent winner of the Minnesota Non-Profit Excellence Award in 2004. The agency provides rehabilitation therapy, early childhood and family services, and employment services for a wide array of youth and adults with disabilities. Also, Lifetrack serves a diverse population of people from various age groups, races, cultures, and ethnic minorities.

Approximately two years ago, the leadership of Lifetrack made a bold decision to close its CBE program in favor of a community-based model of supported employment. This organization believes that anyone can work in the community with the right opportunity and job support. Lifetrack refocused its performance goals and energies to support its program participants in identifying their interests and talents, making the right work plans and preparations, working with employers to find and customize suitable job opportunities, and coordinating the essential support services needed by its participants to make integrated employment in the workforce a reality for all. Lifetrack launched a two-year conversion workplan in 2004 that involved the active participation of board members, management team members, direct service staff, collaborating referring agents and organizations, employers, and of course, participants and their family members. It was a broad and ambitious undertaking.

“Don, this conversion work is very tough business,” said Becky. “It’s been a challenging two years for us. However, we are close to completing the process and all people formally served inside our workshop have either been placed into a community-based job, are still looking for the right job, or have been referred to other service providers. We worked with each person on an individual basis and tried our best to honor each person’s individual choices,” she continued.

“Wow! So you have already completed the process? How did it turn out?” I asked. Becky’s responded with some interesting details. “Well, at one point we were serving as many as 60 extended employees inside Packaging First (Lifetrack’s workshop). As we became more experienced in the delivery of supported employment, we reduced this number to 39 by November of 2004. Of course, we had diverted many others into supported employment in recent years, therefore, these services and numbers were growing in size. So we were trying to find jobs and place out the remaining 39 people at Packaging First these past two years. Today, we have more than 180 people working in supported employment when you add all of Lifetrack’s supported employment programs including MEC. This conversion process has really been an eye opening experience for me. And it was an outstanding effort by everyone associated with the transformation of our CBE program.”

I decided to gently challenge my good friend: “So tell me Becky, were you successful in placing everybody out into a community-based job?” Becky replied: “Well, we either already have or will place a large majority of these individuals into the workforce! And guess what? We learned along the way that a few people didn’t even want or need supported employment after so many years of employment in the workshop. Isn’t that amazing? However, a majority of the people we placed will be receiving ongoing job support from Lifetrack’s supported employment program or through other partner organizations,” she answered proudly.

I pressed Becky a bit further. “So what happened to the people you weren’t able to place?” Becky continued on with her story: “Oh sure, we had a handful of people who had asked to be referred to other service providers so they could continue to work in a CBE program. Also, we had a couple of people who chose to retire due to age or medical reasons. However, these people were a small minority in the group.”

Undaunted, I challenged Becky further with a direct attack. “Aha, so you are saying that integrated employment is not a good option for everyone? And some people are better served in center-based programs, right?”

I have worked closely with Becky for 13 years and could have easily predicted her response. However, we were having a fun social lunch and it’s my nature to take a cheap shot even if only in jest with a close friend. “No, that is not what I am saying Mr. Smarty Pants,” she responded with playful anger.

“At Lifetrack, we believe that anyone can work in the community workforce with the right accommodations and support. However, we do not force anyone against their will to accept this premise that they MUST work in the community. At Lifetrack we gently make the case that it is their right, but the ultimate decision is truly theirs to make. And I think this decision should be an informed choice.”

Becky reflected further: “You know Don, many of the people we support have a long history of learned helplessness. From their early childhood days in grade school to their transition from high school into adulthood, many young adults have been told they have ‘disabilities’ and can’t do a lot of things like their non-disabled peers. For decades, our government even required that people meet a means test of being ‘permanently disabled and unable to work’ in order to access Social Security disability benefits. So why are we surprised when people with disabilities don’t believe in themselves? And why shouldn’t we expect some hesitancy or fears from family members or employers about these radical changes we are now proposing? This is just a natural part of the growing process. And sadly, some people get trapped by attitudes and never get the shot to try.”

“I agree with you Becky. However, a lot of people use this shallow logic as a basis for their arguments to continue center-based disability and CBE programs. It’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy, I said.”

“Well, Lifetrack’s referral of some people to other center-based programs is not a reflection of their abilities, but rather decisions driven by these prevailing attitudes and stereotypes,” Becky answered. “In our experience at Lifetrack, most people can work in the right situation with the right support. It’s a matter of customizing the job around their abilities. As you know, conventional job placement just doesn’t work for everyone. However, sometimes the issue about ‘job qualifications’ can be reframed by insuring that each job seeker gets to use the talents and potential he or she has. This means working with people one at a time. And yes, it means educating employers about creative possibilities so everyone has an opportunity to work no matter what their challenges are. As the old saying goes, if there is a will, there is a way,” Becky continued.

Becky went on to share a lesson that she learned during Lifetrack’s two-year conversion program. “Don, let me share with you an interesting story that drives home my point more clearly. For many years, Lifetrack employed an individual I will call ‘Sharon’ in our CBE program. Sharon was hired by our agency as a sheltered employee more than 19 years ago. Over many years, we tried to encourage Sharon to consider the idea of working in the community particularly after we introduced and became more proficient in the delivery of supported employment. However, Sharon rejected the idea repeatedly. She even worked to sabotage any efforts Lifetrack made to encourage her to move out and join the competitive workforce.”

Becky continued with her point: “Why? Well, Sharon just didn’t believe in herself. She was afraid of working out in a community and workforce that she had no first-hand experience with. Sharon had no interest in leaving her comfort zone and refused repeated offers at job placement. Her hardened attitude was shaped by so many years of experience in CBE. This includes all of the securities as well as trappings that we know are associated with it (i.e., losing friends, etc.). Sharon does not articulate her feelings very well but it was clear to us that she was just afraid of failing.”

Becky then shared an interesting sequence of events: “After Lifetrack’s decision to close its CBE program, Sharon’s clear choice was to work for another organization that offered a center-based program. After much research, we found an opportunity in the Twin Cities that appeared to be a good match and we helped to enroll her in the program. And then a curious thing happened. About a month later, I received a message from this organization saying that they could no longer serve Sharon due to complications associated with funding. And believe it or not, they asked if Sharon could return to Lifetrack! Of course, we were proceeding with our plans to close CBE but felt an obligation to re-engage services and help Sharon find the right niche. We carefully explained to Sharon that we could not place her back into our workshop but still believed in her ability to work in the community if a job was matched to her interests and skills. After Sharon’s aborted workshop experience, she was now far less enthused with the idea of finding another CBE program. She begrudgingly agreed to participate in a job placement plan to be carried out and supported by Lifetrack’s staff.”

Becky shares the conclusion of her story: “Don, shortly thereafter we were able to find a customized job for Sharon at the Mall of America (MOA). The job and venue is such a great match to her interests and abilities! Today, she is working in the common area of the mall cleaning and doing a variety of customized tasks to keep MOA looking spiffy for thousands of its daily shopping customers. Sharon just loves her new job! She gets to meet many new people at MOA including shoppers who are visiting from abroad on a daily basis. It’s completely different type of work and social setting from her 19 years of experience inside our workshop. And MOA’s supervisors are very supportive and impressed with Sharon’s reliability and quality of work.”

“You know, as I look back at this story, I can’t help but wonder about what might have been,” Becky said. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Well, what if this other agency found the money to support her CBE program? Then Sharon would have missed out on this exciting opportunity to work in the labor force and share her skills with private industry. It took unplanned adversity for Sharon to get another chance,” Becky said.

With a prideful gleam in her eye, Becky leaned forward and said to me: “Do you know what? Sharon recently told us that she is now making enough money to save for a vacation to Disney World in Florida. Isn’t that a cool story?”

With a broad smile, I answered back: “Yes, it is. And you right on all counts, Becky. The management and staff at Lifetrack should be very proud in achieving this conversion milestone. I have no doubt you folks did the right thing and many people are now going to benefit from the redirection of your agency’s employment programs.”

OK, I had to take one final cheap shot at her. “And speaking of Disney World, I am so glad to hear that you and your colleagues aren’t ‘Mickey Mousing’ around with CBE anymore.”

“And you are Goofy,” Becky shot right back at me.
For more information about Lifetrack Resources, visit their web site here.

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