Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Guiding Hand of a Mom

On April 19, 2009, my organization held its annual gathering called Celebrate Rise! This event gives Rise a wonderful opportunity to pause and celebrate notable achievements and accomplishments of many business leaders, landlords, staff, and program participants who exemplify the spirit of our corporate mission. Celebrate Rise! has become an annual event and is a reminder to everyone associated with our organization about this important work we do in connecting people to jobs, housing, and integrated community involvements. When we connect people to their dreams, it’s these rich human and social experiences that truly transform lives.

Celebrate Rise! is always a highlight of the year for me. I enjoy listening to recipients of this recognition articulate in their own words what it means to work together toward a common purpose. And this event always reinforces a simple truth that people with disabilities and other barriers are just like the rest of us trying to navigate their way to the good life through personal, social, and economic goals.

Among several individuals recognized at this year’s event was a young entrepreneur with a significant disability who was supported by Rise in launching his own business. It was a blast reconnecting with him and his family. I remembered receiving an email from this young man’s Mom with the header Self-Employment for my Son back in April of 2005. The email identified her son’s long time interest in starting a business involving pets because of his strong love for animals. The email continued on about how running a small business would make a lot of sense given this individual’s unique employability needs and self-reliance goals.

Sadly, despite his strong interest in self-employment, the young man was receiving very little encouragement at the time. There was very little interest in giving his self-employment dream some badly needed traction including financial investment in his enterprise. Simply said, most professionals working with him did not trust that self-employment was a realistic or attainable goal given his complex disabilities.

Despite setbacks, the young man still had “Mom” in his corner and she did not give up hope. In the email, she shared with me she had attended a training seminar about self-employment featuring Cary Griffin, who is a colleague of mine and a national expert on this subject matter. Mom was so impressed with Griffin’s presentation she began researching local resources in the Twin Cities that could offer more encouragement and assistance with her son’s entrepreneurial goals. On the advice of representatives from PACER Center, a family education and advocacy organization hosting the Griffin seminar, the young man’s Mom contacted me to see if Rise could be of some help.

I arranged a visit for the young man and his Mom to meet with me and Joan Distler. Joan is a customized employment manager at Rise experienced in self-employment planning and the launch of small business microenterprises. I remember the initial visit like it happened yesterday. The young man was very shy and he did not demonstrate much self-confidence during our initial encounter. However, his mood and focus changed noticeably when he shared information with us about his own pets and passion in caring for animals. He even brought along a number of photos of his numerous pets, including animals of the exotic variety, to share with us.

The aspiring entrepreneur spoke with Joan and me about his past volunteer experiences at the Como Zoo in St. Paul and local Animal Humane Society. He talked about his job experiences as a kennel attendant at a veterinary clinic and most recent employment as a pet sitter for a local company in the Twin Cities. Also, he shared with us about his goal to enroll in a local business school to complete a course as a certified veterinary technician. He understood how increasing his skills in basic animal first aid would foster trust in his competencies to manage and care for pets with health conditions.

The young man’s Mom was clearly an attentive parent. She was highly optimistic about her son’s self-employment potential but clearly frustrated by the lack of support he had been receiving. It was a challenge to gain the support of people who were doubtful about his potential to run a business even with support. It was apparent the young man was “hitting the wall” in getting any support to develop a business plan. And his Mom was still searching without success for a viable resource to guide him and the family.

Joan and I were not only impressed with this young man’s possibilities but believed strongly in his chances for success. Frankly, we were puzzled why others could not see the passion and abilities in him that were so obvious to us.

Joan began meeting with him regularly (and occasionally with his Mom) to complete the business plan process. The procedure was slower than usual in approach because this young man is very methodical by his nature. For this reason, Joan paced and customized the business planning process to match his preferences and preparedness to take the next steps. The young man enrolled in school and worked hard to complete the veterinary technician course. They used helpful resources available at a business development center sponsored by the Small Business Administration (SBA). And together, they wrote a business plan that took in all critical aspects of running a sound business (i.e., financing, bonding, and insurance). Finally, together they challenged other involved professionals to approve the business plan and invest the necessary financial resources to assist with the launch.

Like most start-up businesses, there were a number of twists and turns. The young man had to work a couple of part-time jobs while establishing his client base. And planning around the young man’s disabilities was fundamental to making it work. All said, it took a couple of years to bring his dream fully to fruition. Through solid business planning and hard work, the young man successfully launched his own enterprise. And it has been growing steadily—principally by word of mouth.

His pet sitting business offers a wide range of services to individuals and families needing quality care for their family pets. This includes standard visits for companionship and feeding, walking pets for exercise, general pet care to assist families during vacations and leaves of absences. Also, the young man’s training allows for some limited medical care to pets during his home visitations.

Is he any good at it? As I understand it, he has a brand new problem to contend with. His enterprise has now grown to a point where he is considering adding on an employee to help manage his business’ growth in customers. This is quite a feat for a young man who was once considered incapable of running his own business by the "experts."

And so, here I am four years later reconnecting with the young man and his family at our corporate annual event. I must tell you the truth. He didn’t look at all like the same shy young man who walked into a conference room to meet with us a few years back. Now he walked and talked with an air of confidence and maturity that was lacking just a few years back. In accepting his “Rise-ing Star” recognition, the young man shared his appreciation with an audience of close to 500 people at the Earl Brown Center in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. As a successful business entrepreneur, he was contributing skills and talents needed by our community. Further, he was earning a living doing something he clearly loves to do.

At Rise, we are very excited about this young man’s accomplishments and were proud to showcase his small business success story at our annual event. However, there is another important story here within this larger story.

No one can take away anything away from this young man. His accomplishments and determination to pursue his career goals were a credit of his own making. Also, we’re very proud of Joan Distler for her investment of time and expertise in guiding this program participant each small step of the way. To be sure, a number of people played a pivotal role in shaping this business success story. The hidden story, however, is the encouragement and strength of a Mom who did all she could to keep his dream alive.

I received this email the day after our event and want to share it publically. It read:

Don,

Thank you so much for opening the doors for ______. Your belief in him started this whole process - and we are very grateful!

Celebrate Rise was such an awesome event for us. ____ has been walking tall all day long!

My whole family felt inspired last evening. Thank you for "creating opportunities!"

I appreciated her email. But make no mistake about this—it was the unyielding love of a Mom and her steadfast belief in a son that set the table for success. Simply said, she set forth expectations about what was possible and was persistent in guiding her son until he found the right measure of support he needed to realize his dream.

Never underestimate the impact that family members have in promoting expectations and increasing the possibilities of competitive employment for their loved ones. On this evening, I had the chance to reconnect with one special Mom about her son’s business exploits. She was very appreciative for the support her son had received from us. And she was visibly moved by the special recognition her son had earned on this particular evening.

Yes, it was a son’s special day and here he stood on center stage. At the same time, it was a special day for a proud Mom sitting in the audience who had who had worked tirelessly to shine a bright spotlight on her son's entrepreneurial spirit and strengths.

Today is Mother’s Day. I would like to salute every Mom who works unselfishly to insure her youth or adult children have equal access and opportunities to live, learn, work, and recreate in our communities. Trust me about this one thing—your expectations and helpful engagement is fundamental to their success.

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