Monday, July 17, 2006

The AmeriCorps I-Team

After about 30 minutes or so of give and take, the trio looked back at me with amazement and bewilderment. I was getting these long confused looks that communicated without words–"What on earth have we gotten ourselves into?!"
The dialogue went something like this:
AmeriCorps Members: What is this program all about?
Lavin: Well, it’s really not a program. I would consider it to be more of a "community service."
AmeriCorps Members: What is the difference?
Lavin: Well, most programs have a lot of rules, procedures, restrictions, and structures attached to what they can do. And this service will have very few if any at all.

AmeriCorps Members: So does this community service have a name?
Lavin: Actually, no. I thought I would leave it to you folks to come up with one.
AmeriCorps Members: Is there a brochure or some literature about this new service?
Lavin: Um, no. Since this service doesn’t exist, I don’t have a brochure or detailed description about it. I only have this one page concept paper. Actually, I thought I would let you folks write a brochure since you will help to define what this service will entail and how it will work.

AmeriCorps Members: But this community service is all about getting jobs for people, right?
Lavin: Yes. Absolutely.

AmeriCorps Members: Well, who are we expected to find jobs for? What types of disabilities will the people we serve have?
Lavin: Well, actually I don’t know. I mean I don’t have a list. This service will offer support to anyone with a disability who is unemployed or underemployed and needs job assistance. We especially want to support unemployed people who don’t have access to good jobs due to long waiting lists, lack of funding, disability ineligibility, or concerns about the types of services they are receiving and need to enter the workforce.

AmeriCorps Members: Well, why aren’t these individuals working?
Lavin: Well, there are a lot of reasons. Most of the individuals have disabilities and other job challenges due to poverty, illiteracy, drug abuse, no transportation, limited job skills, cultural differences, or language barriers. Almost everyone you will work with is unable to get the job assistance and support they need to go to work. And many of these individuals will need customized employment services to use the abilities they have.
AmeriCorps Members: So what exactly is the eligibility to become involved with this service?
Lavin: There really isn’t much in the way of eligibility. There are really only four criteria. They need to be of working age, have a disability, be unemployed or underemployed, and want to work. That’s it!
AmeriCorps Members: Well, there must be thousands of unemployed or underemployed people who are potentially eligible! How will we know "who" to enroll in this service?
Lavin: Well, this decision is completely up to you as a team.
AmeriCorps Members: How many people will the team be expected to serve at a time or by the end of our service year?
Lavin: I don’t know. You will need to decide together how many people you believe you can effectively serve. I only ask that you serve as many people as you believe you can serve effectively. The actual number is completely your judgment and call as a team.

AmeriCorps Members: So what types of services will the people we support need in order to go to work?
Lavin: Hmmm. Well, I guess I really don’t know that either. It really depends on who you choose to enroll and what services they need to get a job in the workforce. You will need to serve people one at a time. If you work in this way you can decide this issue with each individual and others who are supporting them.
AmeriCorps Members: And do we have a budget to support these individuals?
Lavin: Ah, no. All you have is your own creativity. You might be able to access resources that people are already eligible for. However, you won’t know this until you decide who to enroll. And we already know that many will have limited access to funding and other resources.
AmeriCorps Members: Who will be our supervisor?
Lavin: Well, you won’t have a supervisor. Your team will be self-directed. You will need to decide together how to build your service menu, operate your support services, and decide on internal protocols so your team can work efficiently to reach the goals it sets.

AmeriCorps Members: Who will help these individuals find jobs and talk with employers.
Lavin: Oh, that’s an easy one. You will. Unless of course, a person chooses to look for work and talk to employers independently
.

AmeriCorps Members: Well, none of us have ever helped someone with disability find employment. How will we know what to do?
Lavin: You know what? It’s really not rocket science. We will teach you how to do it. I will help with some of the training myself and will ask several of my colleagues at Rise to assist as well.

AmeriCorps Members: Some of these people may have complex disabilities and life issues. How will we know about all of these disabilities and what to do to support each individual?
Lavin: That’s a great question. No one can know everything. So we will prepare each of you so that you are comfortable and have the necessary tools to represent the people you are supporting. I will be consulting with you throughout the year. And we will give you full access to other professional staff here at Rise. In addition, we will refer you to outside experts when helpful to assist you with specific issues or questions the team may have. Each of you can do this with a little training preparation, guidance, and common sense.
By now, the trio was shooting curious looks at one another. And to be honest, I’m not sure they fully grasped what I was sharing with them for the first time. By the end of our meeting, however, it was abundantly clear they must become a team and establish fundamental agreements with each other to work together and launch this new service.
Lavin: So are you folks game? Do you think you are up to the task?
AmeriCorps Members: The trio nodded in unison. And one said "Let’s do it!"
At this moment, the I-Team was born. We chose the name "I-Team" to reflect the core reasons for launching this unique community service. The "I" stands for the Invisibility of people with disabilities in our economy, Inaccessibility to needed job assistance, and perceived Impossibility of placing many of these individuals into our community’s workforce. In sum, the I-Team is all about creating access and insuring enrolled participants receive the customized services they need to reach their individually expressed job goals.
The I-Team is a sub-group of a larger interagency AmeriCorps program called Work in Progress (WIP). For readers who may be unfamiliar with AmeriCorps, it is a national service program that is often referred to as America’s "domestic Peace Corps." AmeriCorps offers opportunities for Americans, ages 18 and older, to strengthen their communities by participating in national service. AmeriCorps members serve their communities by becoming actively involved in issues pertaining to democracy, human services, education, social justice, environmental concerns, national security emergency response, and workforce economics.
By choosing to become involved in national service, AmeriCorps members learn about personal responsibility, leadership, and contributing one’s talents to make America’s communities better places to live. Members receive a small living allowance and can earn post-secondary education awards after successful completion of one or two-year national service commitments.
The I-Team’s founding members were Bethany Campbell, Jeffrey Nurick, and Nancy Sager. Nurick and Sager were so dedicated to the idea they chose to serve a second year to further develop the I-Team concept. In the second program year, Beth McClung joined Nurick and Sager to refine the I-Team’s support activities (current I-Team Members Sager, Nurick, and McClung are pictured above along with Nurick’s personal care attendant).
The I-Team moved rapidly to organize every aspect of this brand new community service. They designed brochures complete with an I-Team logo. They agreed on an employment support strategy and together wrote a description of their unique service model. They marketed the I-Team concept to community agencies, workforce centers, schools, employers, and directly to people with disabilities. They received public awareness in our community through published newspaper articles. And they independently designed and launched an Internet blog to communicate about the I-Team’s work. Finally, they initiated formal written agreements with one another to cement the bonds of teamwork.
The I-Team designed a nontraditional model of employment assistance that is open-entry, open-exit with no closure point after one’s enrollment. Anyone leaving the I-Team’s active services could return at any time and for any reason since I-Team cases are never "closed" following enrollment. The team works closely with case managers from schools, counties, and adult service agencies where its participants are receiving education or community support. Oftentimes, the I-Team is the only identified support an enrolled participant receives.
What do I-Team members do? The I-Team prepared a person-centered service model and members deliver customized job support to all enrolled individuals based on their expressed interests and needs. They assist people with career planning and developing job placement targets. They assist people in identifying the support they need to achieve job success. They encourage and support some people who want to conduct their own job search from behind the scenes. In other instances, I-Team members go out into the community to speak directly with employers on behalf of an enrolled participant. The I-Team was trained to customize jobs based on the interests and abilities of the people they serve. In addition, the I-Team is open to assisting people with their self-employment interests and business development planning.
So who did the I-Team choose to serve? They worked with homeless individuals, people languishing on waiting lists due to a low priority for services, people who are ineligible for job assistance due to disability order of selection screening, people living with chronic organ diseases and progressive illnesses, former drug abusers (including a former meth user), adults with serious mental illnesses (SMI), one individual who is a transexual with SMI, adults with developmental disabilities who are unhappy in adult center-based settings, adults with physical disabilities including amputees, welfare recipients with disabilities, and youth with significant disabilities who are in transition from school-to-careers. A majority of the people enrolled have multiple disabilities and functional job barriers. In short, virtually all of the individuals the I-Team enrolled were considered challenging-to-employ by anyone’s standards.
And how did the I-Team perform? After only 11 months of the present year, the team has enrolled more than 35 people and assisted 14 in obtaining competitive employment in the workforce. The average wage of people placed into the workforce was close to $10.00 per hour with a range of $7.15 to $16.41. The I-Team’s participants work anywhere from 20 to 40 hours per week with the actual number of work hours driven by each person’s expressed goals. Many job seekers remain active with the I-Team and anticipated job placement totals will likely increase before the I-Team completes its second service year. What an exciting and creative way to support people who are on the outside looking in!
The I-Team has indeed made a difference in the lives of many enrolled individuals. And many of the Team's participants have expressed appreciation at having access to a customized community service. For example, the I-Team provided job placement assistance to a welfare recipient and former meth user who lives with SMI. This individual was unable to access the individualized help she needed to find the right job. This person has been working close to one year now and is earning more than $16.00 an hour. She is making outstanding strides in putting her life back together and has remained chemical free since going to work. It has been one tough road to tow but this I-Team participant appreciates the extra encouragement and technical job support she received from the Team during this past year.
The I-Team had unexpected but exciting news this past year. One of the I-Team’s members, Nancy Sager, was thrilled to learn that she had been selected to meet President George W. Bush on his recent visit to the State of Minnesota. Nancy was selected from among her colleagues to represent the entire Corps during the President’s visit. Nancy was being honored by the President for her dedication to national service as an AmeriCorps member and making a difference in her community. It was a well-deserved recognition for Nancy and she modestly shared in this honor with the rest of her AmeriCorps colleagues. The full WIP AmeriCorps team assisted more than 110 individuals with disabilities collectively in obtaining successful employment outcomes during this past program year!
In the next few weeks, existing Corps members will leave their national service positions and move forward to meet their next career challenges. We will sure miss all of them. And I will especially miss the I-Team members who I worked so closely with during these last two years. Nurick, Sager, and McClung gave it their best shot. And together they dedicated five years of their lives to this effort. As a team, the trio worked tirelessly to transform an idea from its concept stage to real participant success. I couldn't have asked for more from them.
For this reason, I owe the I-Team members a debt of gratitude I can never fully repay. With that said, I recognize they received intrinsic rewards each time someone they supported succeeded in landing a good job. To be sure, the I-Team knows in its heart of hearts they made a big difference in the lives of people who had few if any options available to them. Personal achievement and satisfaction for dedicated AmeriCorps members just doesn’t get any better than this.
Soon the founding members of the I-Team will leave Rise and they will be replaced by a new group of interested community citizens. Maybe the I-Team didn't move mountains but our community is a slightly better place than it was before Nurick, Sager, and McClung chose to serve and share their talents with us.
For more information about the I-Team, you can visit the team's blog at http://americorpsiteam.blogspot.com/ For more information about the Work In Progress AmeriCorps Program, visit our web site at http://www.rise.org/americorps/ or call Program Coordinators Sonya Nyberg or Lindsey Hanson at 612-781-3114.

2 Comments:

Blogger Amanda said...

great blog

9:46 AM  
Blogger Don Lavin said...

Thanks Amanda. I do appreciate your stopping by.

9:56 AM  

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