Giving Thought: When work can be literally life-changing

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

Employment is vitally important for most of us, at least as a source of money and often as a catalyst for social relationships and self-worth. Imagine, then, what a game-changer a job could be for an individual with physical or cognitive disabilities.

Finding jobs for the developmentally disabled is one of many services provided by Mountain Valley Developmental Services (MVDS) in Glenwood Springs. Since October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, we spoke with Executive Director Sara Sims and John Klausz, director of day and employment services, about job training and placement for people with special needs.

Aspen Community Foundation: Please explain why employment services are important to you and the people you serve.

John Klausz: If you have a disability, then you’re three times more likely to be unemployed than someone without a disability. If people are unemployed and isolated at home, with limited social networks, then there’s limited room for personal growth over time. Getting people out to work builds self-confidence and self-esteem.

When we get people in the right workplace and they’re successful, then the need for staff support, and the cost of that staff time, dramatically decreases. Because we are funded mostly through state and federal sources, that’s a benefit to all taxpayers.

ACF: What does it take to match employers and people with disabilities? Can you provide any examples?

JK: First, we have a job coach, who helps individuals to recognize their interests, strengths and weaknesses. Picking a career path based on those qualities, and figuring out how that applies to our job market, is a very customized, one-on-one process.

Some of our people have a car, have a driver’s license and can get around on their own. If they can handle things alone, then we’re mostly in the background. But some prospective employees need support literally every step of the way. They might not be able to fill out a job application. Sometimes they need coaching during the actual job interview. It really runs the gamut.

One gentleman works at Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore near Glenwood. He’s socially engaging, physically active and interacts with customers, moving heavy items and working in a team environment. It really fits him; last year he won their “most enthusiastic employee” award.

Another gentleman with a very different personality works at Glenwood Medical Associates. He is easily overwhelmed if there’s too much going on nearby, so he works in a quiet office with a super-supportive employer who helps him keep the focus he needs to be productive. He’s been working there for more than 15 years.

ACF: How many people overall are involved in your employment programs?

Sara Sims: We operate in four counties — Pitkin, Eagle, Garfield and Lake — and we currently support 44 successfully employed individuals. We work with about 47 employers, all of whom deserve a huge thank-you. We also employ six individuals ourselves in the greenhouse behind our offices and the Art on 8th store in Glenwood.

There’s a common perception that people with disabilities work only in fast food, but we’re able to place people in businesses like Clark’s Market, the Rifle Library, Defiance Thrift Store, Lowe’s and many others.

ACF: Please give an overview of the other services you provide.

SS: We help individuals with developmental delays or disabilities in our four-county area to live a meaningful, connected life. We get involved whenever that person or their family first comes to us, and often we can be involved throughout their life.

Our largest program is early intervention, which provides specialized therapy to about 400 children under the age of 3. It’s important to note that 60 percent of these children function developmentally equivalent to their peers by the time they reach school age. In other words, had they not received that intervention, they may have qualified for special education.

Through our family support program, we provide funding and service coordination for more than 60 children and young adults. For other individuals, we provide daily living needs in various settings — private homes, family homes and group homes. We help people to access various services — financial, medical, educational — in their communities, and we provide case management to all people we serve.

ACF: What’s new or coming soon?

SS: I just took over leadership from Bruce Christensen, who was here for 39 years, so we’re figuring out who we are again. Over the years we’ve done a good job of being pretty invisible in the community, because we wanted to promote the independence of individuals, not Mountain Valley. The community has been very supportive and I think they’d be even more supportive if they knew more about us. We’re working to enhance our presence within our communities.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.