Veteran Tony Harrington Brings Hope, Gives Goodwill as Hometown Hero
At the core of Tony Harrington’s determination to help others succeed is the Army value: “If you aren’t going to quit, neither will I.” As a Retention Specialist with MERS/Goodwill and 30-year Army veteran, Tony believes that every person has the capacity to gain meaningful employment and become more self-sufficient. He instills this belief in the people he works with, and over time, his clients believe in themselves and go on to great successes.
“Tony is such a special addition to the MERS/Goodwill team,” said Ben Williams, Tony’s supervisor. “He is the perfect example of a Veteran bringing successes of a military career into the civilian workforce and installing that can-do attitude into the lives of the people he works with. He is deeply invested in the current and future wellbeing of Goodwill’s clients, which truly makes him a Hometown Hero.”
Originally from Indianapolis, Tony began his 30-year tenure with the United States Army right after graduating from high school in 1980. He entered the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear School at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. where he trained as a TOW DRAGON missile repairman. In 1996, eager to further his military career, Tony switched to the Chemical/Decontamination Infantry Division and became a Noncommissioned Officer. As a First Sergeant with the 256 Infantry – a position he held for 10 years – Tony fulfilled his responsibilities of accomplishing missions and ensuring the welfare of his soldiers. In 2004, Tony supervised nearly 300 soldiers in Iraq and brought every troop back home with him the following year. Perhaps the most rewarding experience during his time with the military was training the next generation of soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas. Tony worked with the National Guard, Army, Air Force and Navy through a series of events and training exercises to prepare for deployment to Iraq.
“I began and ended my military service in basic training,” said Tony. “Even after 30 years, I still wanted to be out in the field serving others.”
In 2011, Tony moved to St. Louis and enrolled in St. Louis Community College’s Engineering Science program. Obtaining an engineering degree seemed like the natural choice for Tony. While his physical capabilities were limited as a result of back injuries during his service, Tony realized he wanted to further his education and gain the administrative skills needed to be successful in a civilian entry-level position.
Tony heard about MERS/Goodwill’s skills training programs from other Veterans in the community and decided to enroll in the 26-week Office Computer and Administrative Skills Training (Office CAST) Program. The Office CAST Program equips individuals with entry-level office skills, including typing and data entry, clerical applications, personal computer operations, Windows operating systems and word processing applications.
There, Tony assumed a natural leadership role, connecting with fellow Veterans in the course as well as at-risk youth. Bertha Vinson, Instructor for Office CAST, took note: “Tony would coach the youth about being professional, showing them how to dress, what to say and not say. One day, Tony had organized for everyone in the class to come in dressed professionally; that’s something I’ll never forget.”
When Tony’s Office CAST course was coming to an end, Bertha recommended he apply for an open position as a Retention Specialist with MERS/Goodwill. “Tony is a good mentor and has a gift of keeping unity among groups,” added Vinson. “His ability to build trust is a rare quality that underserved individuals truly need.”
Just a few months later, Tony got the job. Still enrolled in the engineering program at STLCC, Tony’s passion for helping others only grew stronger. He decided to switch his focus to Human Resources. “Tony is an incredible person,” said Ben Williams. “When he walks in a room, everyone stops to say, ‘hello.’ Tony creates this space where everyone is equal, regardless of their disability or barriers.”
“Sometimes, individuals may not have a support system in their personal lives to encourage them to do their best,” added Ben. “Tony fills this gap by demonstrating how to do a job and, perhaps more importantly, continually reminding others that they have the ability to do it.”
At any given time, Tony works with up to 25 individuals with disabilities to help them set both personal and career-focused goals in order to be successful in a job setting. When a consumer struggles with aspects of his or her job, Tony is the diplomatic advocate that works with a supervisor or employer to modify job requirements when needed so that the client can continue working effectively for their employer, and for themselves.
“I get to help people who really need the support to cope and survive by building a sense of independence in each and every client,” said Tony. “As a retired Veteran, this is the best job in the world.”
Josh Payne – MERS/Goodwill success story
Josh Payne knows first-hand that just about anything can be accomplished with faith in yourself and a great support system.
As a student at Pattonville High School, Josh made great strides. He never missed class and earned the highest community service hours in his class. Josh received support through the Special School District (SSD) of St. Louis County as a result of his diagnosis of cerebral palsy. Through the SSD program, Josh volunteered as a freshman and sophomore with The Woodlands retirement community. Josh also volunteered through school at the St. Louis Outlet Center (The Mills) and the St. Louis Zoo where he helped with bussing tables, mopping, sweeping and other janitorial tasks. Josh even volunteered as a senior at Ranken Jordan Pediatric Bridge Hospital, which positioned him for work after school.
After graduating from high school in 2007, Josh was eager to find and keep meaningful employment. But in 2008, just as Josh was gaining momentum, he needed surgery on his hip which would require months of rehabilitation. Devastated by the news, and feeling overwhelmed, Josh turned to Missouri’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and MERS/Goodwill for guidance.
In 2008, Josh was referred by his Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor to participate in Goodwill’s Assessment Program to explore his interests and identify any barriers that could interfere with his success on a job. There, it was determined that Josh would be a good fit for Goodwill’s Sheltered Employment program in order to build his stamina back up. The Sheltered Employment program provides employment and case management services to individuals choosing a supported setting, offering piece rated work experiences including packaging, assembly, collating and machine operation.
Josh enrolled in the Sheltered Employment program in 2010 and maintained employment there until he was ready to take the next step in his journey to independent employment. In 2013, Jennifer Ansel, Job Exploration Specialist, spent time with Josh to consider competitive employment options. Josh told Jennifer that he enjoyed his volunteer experiences in high school, and after trying out positions at area employers he began working with a MERS/Goodwill Employment Specialist, Kathy Piloski. Kathy recalls, “From day one, Josh made it clear he would do whatever it takes to get a job and he stuck through it despite some speed bumps along the way.”
Josh’s resume is an employer’s dream: extensive volunteer service throughout high school, impeccable attendance and solid references. Josh’s goal was to work in the food service industry and Kathy helped him prepare for the interview process by practicing how to respond to questions in a conversational tone.
Soon, Josh was able to answer any question that Kathy threw at him, whether they were practicing or not. Kathy identified nearly 50 potential employers for Josh and together they applied to every single one. Josh continued to work at the Sheltered Workshop during his job search, and even kept his interview clothes there just in case an interview opportunity came up while he was working there.
Many of the employers that Josh applied to were impressed with his resume and called him in for an interview. Josh had over 10 interviews during the summer of 2014. Unfortunately, most potential employers didn’t ask Josh back for a second interview, possibly due to the limp caused by his diagnosis.
In September, Josh attended a job fair at the Moonrise Hotel in the Delmar Loop with Kathy. He learned about a new restaurant called Peacock Loop Diner that was looking to hire employees and was holding open interviews. Excited about the opportunity, Josh was ready to interview on-the-spot and waited in line with 20 other candidates to be considered.
It’s no surprise that Josh hit a homerun during his interview; waiting for a call back from the potential employer was the hard part. A few weeks later when Josh was walking home from the bus stop, he got a call from Peacock Loop Diner asking him in for a second interview. They interviewed Josh for only a few minutes before he was hired on the spot.
“The Peacock Diner is a perfect fit for Josh,” said Kathy. “They want to hire long-term employees and are open to job coaching. They made it clear that there were no limitations to Josh achieving success.”
It’s been nearly seven years since Josh first came to MERS/Goodwill. Josh is celebrating four months working at The Peacock Diner; his dedication and perseverance is an inspiration and truly a success story.
Chaille’ Jackson, career coach for MERS/Goodwill, and Darius Luckett
Defying Expectations and Making a Difference in Ferguson: MERS/Goodwill Client Success Story
Darius Luckett defies the expectations of many teenagers. This 18-year-old is making a significant difference in the lives of his peers and the surrounding St. Louis community during a time of needed healing.
Despite dropping out of high school in early 2014, Darius was never one to tread lightly and wait for life to happen. He hit the ground running and found part-time work doing odd jobs around his community. He knew this wasn’t his dream for a long-term career, but he was determined to stay busy while he searched for his passion.
Then, the unthinkable happened. Following the death of Michael Brown on Aug. 9, 2014, Ferguson erupted in a series of protests and riots that would impact the spirit of the community for its residents and for the entire nation.
Darius’ character was illustrated by his actions during his community’s time of need. When the Department of Justice came to Ferguson, Darius stepped up as a volunteer and served as a liaison between the police force and the Ferguson community as a part of the Ferguson Youth Initiative.
Established in 2011, the Ferguson Youth Initiative serves youth in the community by encouraging them and engaging them as active members of the community, developing programs as needed, and further communicating and partnering with existing community programs.
As a young man from Ferguson, Darius said it seemed as though the eyes of the nation were looking at him for answers. He responded better than anyone could have imagined. Darius wanted to make changes in legislation that would benefit his community, so at the recommendation of Gail Babcock, a Board Member for the Ferguson Youth Initiative, he joined the Initiative’s efforts in late October.
MERS/Goodwill’s Ferguson Forward program was established in October 2014 and is fully-funded by Ferguson-based company Emerson. Stemming from the STL Youth Jobs summer program that bridges the gap between youth ages 16 to 23 in high risk communities and the unpredictable job force, Ferguson Forward is a 6-month work experience program designed to support renewed community enrichment and development in Ferguson and the surrounding North Country area.
Once Darius was enrolled in the program, he was introduced to his MERS/Goodwill career coach Chaille’ Jackson. He attended the required financial literacy program, provided by St. Louis Community Credit Union, where he learned about balancing a checkbook, credit scores and what to expect when he received his first paycheck.
“When searching for an employer my number one goal is to make sure the youth do well enough to a point where the employer would hire them regardless of the program,” said Chaille’. “Darius didn’t have a career path in mind, but he knew he wanted to be on his feet and interact with people.”
Chaille’ identified Drake’s Place as a good fit for Darius and met with the local restaurant’s owner, Sunny Lewis, to discuss potential openings for Darius and other Ferguson Forward youth.
“I was surprised when Darius said this was his first job!” said Sunny. “Teenagers aren’t supposed to have this kind of work ethic. He’s really raising the bar for our youth volunteers and even our full-time employees.”
According to Sunny, Darius is never late and is an extremely hard worker. He even came into work to help around the restaurant after hurting his hand and being excused from his scheduled shift. In fact, Drake’s Place has created more employment for Ferguson’s youth since Darius was introduced to the team.
When the program finds a fit between an employer and a young employee, the possibilities are limitless. Darius was hired at Drake’s Place as a dishwasher on Dec. 1, 2014 and is now realizing his passion for cooking. On Dec. 19, 2014 Darius received his first official paycheck; he wants to be a chef, and Sunny is prepared to help him.
“I am so grateful for this opportunity to join the Ferguson Forward program,” said Darius. “Their support and training led me to where I am now.”
After his time in the Ferguson Forward program is complete, Darius and all other participants will have created enough valuable work experience to build a resume. All will be provided two letters of recommendation, one from an employer and one from MERS/Goodwill, as well as one-on-one Job Placement assistance and a connection with other employment resources in the community. The goal of the program is the same as that of the youth: to find a permanent position to further their progress toward reaching their long-term goals.
Darius, however, may not need to start building his resume just yet. Because of his training and coaching from MERS/Goodwill and his outstanding character and proven work ethic, Drake’s Place is expecting to hire Darius after the conclusion of the program. Sunny even has plans to create a flexible work schedule as Darius earns his GED.
Nathaniel Brown, Jr.
MERS/Goodwill Client Success Story – Nathaniel Brown, Jr.
Nathaniel Brown, Jr. was out of work and needed help finding a job. While waiting for the bus one day, Nathaniel began talking with someone who knew about the community employment programs offered by MERS/Goodwill.
Despite not having an official employer for more than 10 years, Nathaniel enthusiastically worked to better his community. He helped his neighbors and older adults by running errands for them, taking out their trash and cleaning their houses. Although Nathaniel loved working and living in this area, he needed a steady job with guaranteed consistent hours.
In July of 2013, Nathaniel was referred to MERS/Goodwill’s Job Placement services by Missouri’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, and he became involved in its Supported Employment Program. This program is designed to meet the employment needs of individuals with developmental disabilities; it includes discovery and exploration to decide on a job goal, job development to find a permanent position, job coaching to learn the responsibilities of the position and retention to maintain employment long-term.
When asked what the biggest obstacle was in pursuit of reliable employment, Nathaniel said, “I hadn’t had a legitimate job in years and employers considered my community work to be invalid.”
Once Nathaniel began this program and met his MERS/Goodwill Employment Specialist, Tom Lemon, his future seemed to offer many more opportunities. Tom helped Nathaniel look for jobs that fit his unique interests, experiences and skill levels.
“Right away, I noticed Nathaniel’s determination in finding a job,” said Tom. “Even though he was self-employed, business had started to really slow down, and he wanted to find a job where he was guaranteed a steady paycheck.”
Nathaniel’s success in the program was inevitable due to his eagerness and positivity in finding the right job. Tom recalls, “Nathaniel would call me throughout the week to let me know about job leads, business he was interested in or places that he saw were hiring. Even though it was taking some time to find Nathaniel the right job, never once did he show signs of giving up. It only made him work harder to find other possible opportunities.” At times, Nathaniel showed his frustration, but he always kept a positive attitude and kept trying, even when giving up seemed liked the only option.
When Tom saw an opening for a housekeeping position at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, he immediately thought of Nathaniel as a qualified candidate. Tom referred Nathaniel to Ben Williams, MERS/Goodwill Supported Employment Specialist, who coordinates interviews and the job application process for BJH through a grant from the St. Louis Office for DD Resources.
“Tom taught me how to speak with people professionally and look people in the eye,” said Nathaniel. “He also helped me understand how to interview for a job.”
Tom added, “We were able to counteract his work history by working with Nathaniel’s interview skills and presenting to employers that he was still actively keeping up with his janitorial skills.” Nathaniel’s work on his interview skills paid off. Barnes-Jewish Hospital was blown away by his interview and offered Nathaniel a full-time position as a housekeeper. He gladly accepted the offer and began his work in June of 2014, receiving benefits and a short-term disability package.
“As the main housekeeper in the south cafeteria, I wipe down tables, sweep the floor and greet staff, patients and their family members,” said Nathaniel. “It’s a new experience, and my supervisor and coworkers are solid people and supportive.”
Even after leaving his legacy of work in his community, Nathaniel is still helping people in need at BJH, and Tom couldn’t be happier for Nathaniel. Nathaniel is showing the world that he always had what it took to be a model employee. “All he needed was a little help to get the ball rolling,” Tom said.
Nathaniel says he receives compliments from the hospital staff daily and has even noticed more and more people eating in the cafeteria since he began six months ago.
“I was getting ready to go to my lunch hour, and I thought of how much better it is to have my lunch in the cafeteria now,” said a BJH employee. “I love how clean and great it looks since Nathaniel Brown has been working in the area. I look forward to eating in the cafeteria because I know he has always kept it very clean. We need more people like Nathaniel at Barnes because he is a great worker and always has a smile on his face.”
With the help of MERS/Goodwill, Nathaniel found a job that was right for him. He is one step closer to reaching his long-term goals of being more independent, having money to spend on his family and being able to provide other help for them if they ever needed it.
MERS/Goodwill Client Success Story – Dennis Cronin
Dennis Cronin has come a long way since 2012 when he was referred to MERS/Goodwill’s Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP). In less than two years, Dennis has overcome more personal and professional barriers than most do in a lifetime. Today, Dennis is the building manager for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post in St. Charles – the second largest in the state that oversees more than 1,000 members.
Dennis made an immediate impression on Cherie LeFort, MERS/Goodwill’s SCSEP Employment Specialist, when he began working with her two years ago. His determination to overcome his barriers was inspiring and an indicator of the remarkable person he is today.
Dennis joined the military following the premature death of his son and the end of his marriage. He was an active duty officer in the U.S. Army Artillery with the First Cannon Battalion in 1986. Upon his return, Dennis struggled to find his place in society. He found himself battling depression, eventually self-medicating with alcohol and moving around living between friends’ homes.
Dennis found solace at the local VFW post in St. Charles and soon became a regular, attending game nights and fish fries and relating to other veterans dealing with depression. As Dennis tried to pick up the pieces of his life, he continued to struggle with living independently.
In March of 2012, after spending nearly a week living on the street, Dennis made the decision to deal with some outstanding legal concerns.
“That was a turning point for me,” said Dennis. “I had never considered myself a quitter, but it was hard to overcome the bad choices I made in my life.”
Dennis then turned to MERS/Goodwill for help, where he connected with Cherie. As a SCSEP Employment Specialist, Cherie helps low-income persons age 55 or older that need help finding a job by providing subsidized, work-based training.
“Dennis immediately qualified for the program because of the challenging circumstances he faced – not only as a senior citizen looking to reenter the workforce, but a veteran too,” said Cherie. “Dennis knew he wanted to work at the VFW post so we established that goal as a top priority.”
When Cherie approached Paul Schmidt, District Manager at the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Kohl-Jeck Post 2866 in St. Charles to see if there were any volunteer opportunities for Dennis, Paul was eager to be involved. As a Vietnam veteran himself, Paul understands the need for programs and services like the VFW and MERS Goodwill that provide for veterans. The VFW Kohl-Jeck Post 2866 is one of the largest in the state and raised more than $50,000 for veterans last year.
“The average life expectancy of a Vietnam veteran is 63 years old,” Paul said. “It’s our job to do what we can to help these veterans make it past their 63rd birthday.”
Together, Cherie and Paul worked to establish one significant goal for Dennis: create stability in his life, help him to address the prior legal concerns, and eventually obtain a driver’s license. In working toward these goals, Cherie has seen Dennis slowly gain self-esteem and overcome his self-doubt.
“Making the connection with Paul really was one of the best things I could have asked for in giving Dennis a second chance,” said Cherie. “Once Dennis saw that we believed in him, he naturally evolved into this incredibly thoughtful and motivated person.”
Dennis was assigned to help the VFW in June 2013 for 20 hours a week through the MERS/Goodwill SCSEP. Then in March of 2014, Dennis was hired by the VFW, working 35 hours a week and he was able to find a place to live near the VFW post. His position as building manager includes general maintenance, housekeeping, and providing support and scheduling for large events like wedding receptions and the fish fries.
As a veteran, Dennis never thought the toughest war he would fight would be after his time in the military but, thanks to the support from Cherie and Paul, he doesn’t have to fight alone.
“Dennis has persevered. He is a true hero who continues to inspire me,” added Cherie. “With all of his hard work, Dennis is the one who really made his incredible journey possible.”
MERS Goodwill Hometown Hero – Christina Holmes
There are many facts surrounding domestic violence: one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, most violent acts happen between 6pm and 6am; without help, girls who witness domestic violence are more vulnerable to abuse as teens and adults.
One fact that goes unsaid is that women who experience domestic violence feel powerless; trapped in the cycle of abuse with nowhere to turn to get out. Thanks to Christina Holmes at MERS Goodwill, St. Louis-area victims of domestic violence have another resource to help work toward an abuse-free life.
Christina is the Program Director of ACCESS, a program of MERS Goodwill that provides employment services to victims of domestic violence. Many of these victims do not have the financial capabilities or support from family and friends to leave a violent relationship. ACCESS assists victims with job readiness training, including properly filling out job applications, developing cover letters and resumes for potential employers, conducting interview training, and facilitating proper attire and transportation to interviews.
Studies show that victims of domestic violence attempt an average of seven times to leave their situation before giving up for good; employment is the fastest and most sure way to short circuit this cycle. Since taking the helm of ACCESS in 2010, Christina as seen over 500 victims of domestic violence go through the program and she knows for a fact that her role goes beyond providing the knowhow and support to help those individuals become financially independent: “It’s not just about helping people find jobs, it’s about saving lives,” she said.
Christina’s first experience working with victims of domestic violence was as an intern with St. Martha’s Hall Domestic Violence Shelter in 2007. There, she saw first-hand the debilitating threat women experience while in a violent relationship. She recalls, “I watched battered women barely make it through the shelter doors at night and could feel that moment when they’re just so happy to breathe and relax and not worry about their abuser.”
Then, in April of 2007, Christina joined MERS Goodwill in the role of a Career Assistance Manager where she was involved in the “Welfare to Work” program. Christina provided one-on-one counseling to her clients, including single parents, in exploring and eliminating the barriers to self-sufficiency. There, Christina found her niche in empowering survivors of domestic violence. In 2010, Mark Arens, Executive Vice President of MERS Goodwill, and Lewis C. Chartock, Ph.D., President and CEO of MERS Goodwill, established a pilot program that would eventually become ACCESS and needed a qualified specialist to take on the role as the program’s director. After unsuccessfully searching for nearly nine months, Mark reconnected with Christina and knew she would be a great fit for the role.
“We were just starting to gain momentum with the new program and needed an individual who represents a great balance of compassion and a strong sense of leadership,” said Mark. “Christina has a great passion for this work, along with good head on her shoulders. She knows the management piece, the fiscal piece, how to market the program and how to connect with other providers in the area that provide an array of support for these victims.”
Under Christina’s leadership, ACCESS has expanded its partnerships with area domestic service providers from just one to nearly 15. Christina notes that victims are more likely to share their history with professionals at domestic violence agencies, which is why partnering with counseling agencies and shelters in the area has been instrumental to the program’s success.
“At the end of the day, Goodwill is not known for its domestic violence services,” Mark said. “Christina has been able to effectively communicate our program’s goals with other service providers in the area so we’re not replicating services to domestic violence victims.”
Part of Christina’s efforts include her involvement with the Missouri Coalition for Domestic Violence Board Membership Community. As the St. Louis Regional Representative, Christina meets with the Coalition staff and other service providers in the area to ensure the same concerns are shared. Thanks to the generous financial support from The Simon Foundation, Christina has been instrumental in working to secure federal government funding sources and is currently behind the Victims Employment Safety and Security Act (VESSA), legislation that would provide survivors time off work and help maintain employment if they need to miss work to attend court dates, for example.
Along with having area agencies and service providers know about ACCESS, Christina said the public should also be aware that MERS Goodwill is more than its stores.
“A lot of people don’t realize their donations go back to these training programs,” Christina said. “It’s not just about cleaning out your closet. By donating and buying items, you’re helping provide jobs both within and outside of the stores, and funding resources that are truly helping people rebuild their life.”
It is fitting that this month, which is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, St. Louis Ending Violence Against Women Network (SLEVAWN) will honor Christina as a Domestic Violence Agency Advocate during the Women’s Champion for Social Change Breakfast on October 23 at the Richmond Heights Community Center. The event recognizes “companies, organizations and individuals for their work in championing social change for survivors of intimate partner violence.”
For more information about the MERS Goodwill ACCESS program, call 314-647-7453.
Chris Ross attends the StL Youth Jobs fair in April
Hometown Hero – Chris Ross
Chris Ross, manager for H.M. Dunn Aerospace, has always had a soft spot for helping youth in the St. Louis community. When Chris heard about the StL Youth Jobs program, a new jobs initiative that aims to break the cycle of poverty and crime by coordinating on-the-job work experiences for at-risk youth, he immediately wanted to learn more about how he – and his employer – could get involved.
Now in its second year, the StL Youth Jobs program aims to help at-risk youth ages 16 to 23 in the city of St. Louis secure meaningful summer employment, exposing them to positive adult relationships and providing them with the opportunity to advance their workplace and social skills. For Chris, the program spoke directly to him.
“My philosophy is that we’re all in this together – me, my employer, and the entire St. Louis community,” said Chris. “If our youth need help – regardless of their background – it’s our responsibility to guide them down the right path.”
Chris was encouraged by Patrick McCulloch, MERS Goodwill coordinator for the StL Youth Jobs program, to attend several job fairs in order to have a greater understanding of the program and youth it serves. “In facilitating a good job match it is critical that we understand all the requirements and nuances of a job,” said Patrick. Chris worked with Patrick to explore positions at H.M. Dunn such as shipping & receiving assistant, maintenance assistance, and office/clerical work. Chris was then introduced to Sarah Dotson, case manager for MERS Goodwill, and was paired with two of her clients – Duane and Jordan. Both Duane (age 19) and Jordan (age 18) were interested in electronics as a career path, but had no relevant work experience.
Taking their interests in mind, Chris assigned each youth to a working level manager so they could get on-the-job input from different management styles.
“Part of on-the-job training includes communication between employees and employers and how to meet real-life expectations within the workplace,” explained Chris. “This includes knowing when and how to communicate with your supervisor, which is proven to be an obstacle.”
As is true for many new experiences, youth with little work history can struggle adjusting to new demands. For Duane, he struggled the first few weeks of the program to get to work on time as well as follow directives from Chris. When confronted, Duane didn’t handle it in the best way. During his second week of work Chris asked him to do an undesired task and Duane was on the verge of quitting. Even in trying times, Chris was prepared to hang in there and he knew he could turn to Sarah and MERS Goodwill for help.
“I wanted Duane to understand that he may not always like it when his boss tells him what to do, but that it’s his responsibility, as an employee, to follow his employer’s rules,” said Sarah. “Once I communicated that to him, it was almost like a light bulb went off. He calmed down, called Chris to apologize and the two talked it out together. Since that point he has been ready and eager to learn, and has a better understanding about what it means to be an employee.”
Ultimately, overcoming that key obstacle proved to be a turning point for Duane. With the guidance of the StL Youth Jobs program and the mentorship by Chris and Sarah, Duane has figured out what he wants to do in life. He is interested in becoming an electrician and now has first-hand experience working in a professional setting with electronics. Duane leaned on Chris as a mentor when he wanted to take the next step in his life and was encouraged to enroll in college this fall at Forest Park Community College. Like Duane, Jordan is excited about a career in electronics and will be a student at Lincoln University this fall.
As the summer program comes to a close, Chris is thankful he got to play such an instrumental role in Duane and Jordan’s lives. Chris plans to participate in the StL Youth Jobs program next summer and is committed to helping at-risk kids beyond MERS Goodwill’s summer youth programs.
“Chris was such a positive male role model to Duane and Jordan,” said Sarah. “He not only gave them a chance to experience employment in an actual work setting, he gave them the confidence to be themselves.”
Jim Edmonds, St. Louis sports legend; Jack Windle; Tom Lemon, case manager for MERS Goodwill.
MERS Goodwill Client Success Story – Jack Windle
For more than 15 years, Jack Windle was a dedicated employee in the warehouse industry. But as the economy worsened, Jack soon found himself unemployed. Jack is not only hard-of-hearing, he struggles with reading comprehension, understanding and spelling, which makes filling out job applications extremely difficult.
Soon after losing his job, Jack was homeless and started living in a shelter; however, he needed more than 10 hours of work a week in order to be eligible for subsidized housing. Even though Jack’s son offered for him to stay at his house while he got back on his feet, Jack declined because he didn’t want to be a burden. Despite his pride, Jack continued to face obstacles in his search for employment. The shelter Jack was staying at had a strict rule where everybody had a curfew of 6pm, limiting Jack’s employment options. For Jack, this became a vicious cycle as he struggled to maintain his independence while finding meaningful employment.
Just as he seemed to hit a dead end, Jack turned to MERS Goodwill for guidance. In August of 2013, Jack was referred to MERS Goodwill’s Job Placements services by Missouri’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, where he met Tom Lemon, a case manager for MERS Goodwill. Tom helped Jack fill out applications and find leads for jobs, initially looking for warehouse positions. Unfortunately, many of the open positions were second or third shift and didn’t work with Jack’s schedule. Tom then started looking into the restaurant industry because Jack liked to be on his feet and stay active.
“At first, we were running into much of the same problem where the restaurant positions were later shifts,” said Tom. “It would be easy for anyone in Jack’s position to start getting discouraged; however, he was relentless and never gave up.”
In between weekly meetings with Tom, Jack would ride his bike or take the bus around town to follow up on job leads. Instead of calling potential employers, Jack would make the effort to meet with them in person and fill out applications. Each time that Tom and Jack met, Jack would bring at least five business cards from people that he either talked with or picked up.
Then, in February of 2014, Tom approached Mark Winfield, co-owner of The Precinct, a neighborhood bar and grill in Downtown St. Louis that was near the shelter Jack stayed at. When Mark heard about Jack’s story, he asked Jack to come in and fill out an application and had an on-the-spot interview.
“Mark told me that he wanted to help me out and I started right away,” said Jack. “When I first started working, everyone accepted me and worked with me through my disability, teaching everything I needed to know in order to be a great worker.”
Jack has been working anywhere from 15 to 40 hours a week at The Precinct and is central to their team. He is now eligible for subsidized housing and even found an apartment close to his work so he can ride his bike. Mark, who co-owns The Precinct with St. Louis baseball legend, Jim Edmonds, wanted to help Jack out even more and recently surprised him with a shopping trip to furnish his new apartment. Mark and Jim bought Jack all new furniture, a TV and free cable for a year just in time for Jack to receive his own set of keys.
When Tom looks back at how much Jack has flourished, it still gives him goose bumps. “Some employers would have seen that Jack doesn’t hear or spell well, or doesn’t have a place to live, and decided it meant he wasn’t a good person or wouldn’t be a good employee,” said Tom. “Mark and Jim looked past Jack’s surface and what they got in return was an incredibly dedicated and hardworking addition to the team.”
MERS Goodwill Hometown Hero Story – Linda Woodward
The ability to help an 84-year-old learn new computer programs or teaching at-risk youth the basics of a job interview is just another day in the life of Linda Woodward. Linda, a Job Retention Specialist for MERS Goodwill, is celebrating her 20th anniversary with the agency this summer. For Linda’s colleagues and clients, the celebration is bittersweet; she will officially retire at the end of July.
“Linda is truly an unsung hero,” said Leslie Quarles, Director for MERS Goodwill. “She is such a team player and is always thinking of each and every MERS Goodwill client. Plus, her fashion-sense is on-point and she can rock a fedora like no one else!”
Linda began her Goodwill career in June of 1994 as a temporary Support Staff Supervisor with Metropolitan Employment Rehabilitation Services (MERS) prior to its merger with Goodwill in 2001. The new job was a breath of fresh air for Linda who had wanted a change from working in a corporate environment. Just one week into the job, Linda was recommended for the permanent position and has been a pillar in the organization ever since.
“I decided to take the job because I’ve always been a people person,” said Linda. “I preferred MERS Goodwill because of their humanitarian focus, rather than working to support product development in the corporate world.”
Linda has seen the organization transform from a retail and donations-based non-profit into an organization than annually serves over 50,000 individuals who have barriers to employment through disability or economic advantage. She has held a variety of positions with MERS Goodwill; every time she changed positions with the organization it was at the request of someone within Goodwill who knew Linda’s skills and strengths would be a valuable contribution to their program’s goals.
When Linda took the permanent position as an Administrative Assistant with MERS Goodwill in 1996, she took it upon herself to learn Bosnian, Russian and Yiddish phrases while working for a Director overseeing five programs. In 2005, Linda took the job as a Transition Specialist for high school students with disabilities. There she worked side-by-side with each student to discern their work strengths and obtain appropriate employment opportunities. In 2007, Linda changed programs and was named Job Readiness Instructor where she served clients with various barriers to work to prepare for the job searching process and obtaining employment.
“She has a gift of being able to build rapport and trust with clients, family members, other service providers and employers,” said Carrie Sheahan-Pernsley, Coordinator/PLB Services for MERS Goodwill. “It’s so nice to see her encouraging smile and words motivating someone during a learning curve.”
When Linda was working as a Computer Instructor for MERS Goodwill, she spearheaded the need for a program that would help seniors expand their computer skills. Through a grant from the Simon Foundation, MERS Goodwill started a pilot program in 2006 to provide basic computer skills to seniors.
The program caught the attention of the local community as individuals from very diverse backgrounds were seeking computer skills training for a work-based setting. Linda’s advocacy for her clients didn’t stop there; she personally obtained the necessary computer program and keyboard to teach a veteran and former railroad car tender, with the use of one hand, to type. She also obtained assistive technology to help persons with vision and hearing issues operate a computer.
Linda recalls how she taught her oldest student, age 84, how to do her monthly budget in Excel, set up an email account and send pictures back and forth to her grandchildren in New York. She helped a self-employed importer of goods from Ecuador set up an email address, make his own business cards, and set up a website. Linda helped two sisters who were making sewn garments for their business to better understand how to use their new computerized sewing machines; she helped an elderly woman meet her employer’s new computer accounting standards by adding an extra program piece just for her to practice; the list goes on.
Today, Linda is a Job Retention Specialist with MERS Goodwill, where she assists employed clients with disabilities to interact with supervisors, co-workers and fulfill requirements of their job position through regular visits, goal-setting and coordination with natural supports. Her clients come from all walks of life. Linda supports up to 21 clients at any given time, yet her passion for serving her clients never wavers.
The stories of how Linda has helped others are endless. You may notice Linda wears a heart-shaped brooch on her shirt – she literally wears her heart on her sleeve, serving as a reminder of the wonderful clients she has encountered.
The memories she made and impressions she left during her 20-year tenure with Goodwill makes Linda a true hometown hero.
MERS Goodwill Client Success Story – Paul Stevens
Paul Stevens didn’t want a miracle; he just wanted to be respected, find a good job and to eventually go to college. With the help of MERS Goodwill, he is one step closer to reaching his long-term goals and becoming an independent young adult.
For as long as he can remember, Paul has always thought he was different. Like most teenagers, Paul found high school to be a difficult time. Paul made friends easily with his sense of humor and contagious smile, but he struggled to keep up in his academics. Because he was diagnosed as having a Developmental Disability, he received Special Education classes (SP-ED).
“When my friends started applying for colleges, I thought I could too,” said Paul. “I didn’t understand why I was in SP-ED and it seemed like decisions were being made based on my disability and what people thought I should do after graduation. I became embarrassed because of my disability.”
With the support of Ms. Winchester, a work experience coordinator with the high school, Paul decided to seek the help of Missouri’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. In his last semester of high school, Paul met Lesa Barber, Counselor with Missouri’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, who worked with Paul on his plans after graduation. She recommended Paul enroll in MERS Goodwill’s Supported Employment Program, where he met Marisa Hiatt, Director for MERS Goodwill.
“In Paul’s first meetings with me, he was less than excited to be seeking assistance,” said Marisa. “I wanted to show Paul that Goodwill is here to help him grow, not be his babysitter.”
Paul worked closely with Marisa through Goodwill’s Discovery and Exploration processes, where it was determined that part-time employment would be a good start to his plan after graduation. Paul was passionate about working and interacting with other people, so Marisa encouraged Paul look for employment as a courtesy clerk or in the dietary field.
The biggest obstacle Paul faced was learning how to be professional and serious in a workplace setting with other people. He also didn’t think he needed a lot of support because he had always been independent. Paul also needed a job close to home so he for an easy commute until he could get his driver’s license.
Together, Marisa and Paul visited several potential employers in the retail and food service industries. One of the first places he visited was an assisted living center, Twin Oaks Assisted Living, where he toured the facility and learned of the different jobs available, including housekeeping positions. When Paul toured the kitchen, he was excited about the idea of applying for the open dietary position as a food server.
Through Goodwill’s Job Development process, Paul learned how to prepare for job interviews, including what potential employers might ask during an interview. It was important to Paul that he continue to develop his employment skills, going so far as to ask for a copy of interview questions for further practice even after he was employed.
In September 2013, Twin Oaks hired Paul as a part-time food server at the Wentzville location. Paul is responsible for preparing and delivering snack baskets to the residents, helping set up the dining room, and keeping tabs on the residents’ specific dietary concerns.
When asked what he enjoys most about his work, Paul can’t think of just one thing: “I love everything about my job,” said Paul. “The nurses are so sweet and the staff is like my family. One of the residents, Rosemary, looks forward to seeing me when I come in for my shift; it just makes me happy being a part of their lives.”
Paul’s determination to prove those non-believers wrong paid off. Since graduating in May of 2013, Paul has found a job he loves and he finally got his driver’s license. Paul even auditioned for and got a part in a play as a train conductor in Bye Bye Birdie. He recently performed at St. Louis Community College’s Meramec Campus, where he was able to tour the campus and get his first taste of the college experience.
“Paul makes me smile each time I think about him and how much he has accomplished since graduation,” said Marisa. “I’m so proud of him and can’t wait to see him take the next steps in becoming fully independent.”
Paul’s inspiring story can be seen in an upcoming episode of Thrift Shop Divas, a web series which follows a team of financially-savvy experts as they upcycle materials from Goodwill stores for people in need. In that episode, diva Beth helps Paul find the perfect costume at Goodwill for his role in Bye Bye Birdie.
On left: Vickie Jones and on right: Cynthia Bourgeois
MERS Goodwill Client Success Story ~ Vickie Jones, Computer Works
When Vickie Jones enters a room she exudes confidence with her beaming smile and contagious laugh. Vickie faces the world with a developmental disability, but she has so many things to be grateful for – celebrating four years as a breast cancer survivor, a new apartment, her friends and family, and especially her new full-time job.
It’s hard to imagine that less than a year ago, Vickie was unemployed and found her disability was keeping her from finding a job. With bills piling up and an apartment nearing condemnation, Vickie needed help. She turned to Missouri’s Vocational Rehabilitation services and was referred to MERS Goodwill. Vickie learned about the organization’s new internal computer disassembling program called Computer Works, which provides one-on-one job training and development for individuals with Development Disabilities and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Cynthia Bourgeois, Coordinator for Computer Works first met Vickie in June 2013. The two clicked instantly.
“I could see how bright Vickie was and knew she had so much potential to blossom in both her professional and personal life,” said Cynthia. “Vickie had faced so many obstacles in her life, but she had a real motivation within to overcome her hardships and it was apparent from the moment I met her.”
Vickie was diagnosed with a developmental disability at an early age. She dropped out of high school and had her first child at the young age of 17. Vickie struggled to financially support herself and her children, eventually turning to her ex-husband and grandmother for support. She took on various cleaning and service jobs and even worked as a crossing guard, until the unthinkable happened. Vickie was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2003 – just shy of her thirtieth birthday – and would spend the next six years in recovery. The stress of undergoing chemotherapy and radiation took a toll on Vickie. She struggled to cope with both her disability and diagnosis and developed severe emotional distress during her treatment, which ultimately manifested to extreme anger, affecting her ability to find and keep employment.
“I’ve had a really hard life,” said Vickie. “Cynthia was one of the first people I met who really listened and understood where I came from.”
Vickie was eligible for MERS Goodwill’s Computer Works program which provides in-depth, one-on-one assistance to individuals who are severely disabled by teaching them a set of skills they will be able to use forever. The program relies on computer donations from individuals and businesses within the community and needs a minimum of 325 computer donations per day in order to successfully serve its clients.
Vickie joined the Computer Works program on June 17, 2013 and spent three days training on various tasks. Clients who join the Computer Works program must be interested in deconstruction of computers and, depending on the individual’s skill set, different tasks are assigned. Clients are encouraged to take on new tasks and work to achieve certain levels before graduating from the Computer Works program.
Vickie started out by taking apart computers, which are handled according to guidelines from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. She learned how to demagnetize and physically break down the computer and its components, starting with a goal of 5 computers a day. Within two months, Vickie could tackle 28 computers a day – more than any client had ever accomplished at Computer Works. Vickie loved the challenge of taking on new tasks. She learned how to do it all – computer demanufacturing, stocking monitors, sorting computer components, and collecting materials to set up for the next work day.
Cynthia marveled at Vickie’s progress and encouraged her to take on more responsibility. Soon, Vickie started to take on a leadership role and trained other clients on various tasks. It wasn’t long before Vickie learned how to sort computer motherboards, which up until that time was a job that only Cynthia knew how to do.
“Vickie became my right-hand woman,” said Cynthia. “The fact that Vickie learned so fast and could help train others allowed me to spend more time with clients who needed further one-on-one assistance.”
After just three months in Computer Works, Vickie was no longer suitable for sheltered employment. She was assigned a job developer through MERS Goodwill and started the process of applying for jobs, including how to put together a resume and what to expect in a job interview. Vickie’s biggest obstacle in her transition to full-time employment was learning how to control her anger and overcoming frustration she felt if she witnessed one of her colleagues messing up or doing their job wrong. She began taking anger management classes through St. Patrick’s Center and learned how to cope with her anger.
When Vicki was offered a full-time position as a porter for RiverCity Casino in St. Louis, it was a bittersweet moment.
“Vickie and I were inseparable for nearly three months and she felt like she was disappointing me by leaving the program,” said Cynthia. “She needed some extra encouragement and I kept reminding her how smart she is and to really own her pride.”
Vickie started her new position at RiverCity Casino in March 2014 working almost 40 hours a week. She regularly visits Cynthia and her friends at Computer Works, and is still eager to throw on her apron, put on her gloves and get down to work.
For the first time in her life, Vickie has full benefits and time off. She recently moved into a new apartment and, with the help of Goodwill and good-hearted neighbors, is starting to fill her home with furniture and décor. When Vickie reflects on how far she has come, it brings tears to her eyes: “I can finally say I’m proud of myself.”
Left to Right: Dave Skaggs, Plant Manager for Cintas; Lynn Boyd, HR Manager for Cintas; Michael Dodson, MERS Goodwill client; Zach Van Fleet, Production Supervisor for Cintas; and Quentin Williams, General Manager for Cintas.
Employer Spotlight: Cintas
Maintaining an inclusive and diverse workforce are qualities employers strive to achieve. For Cintas Corporation, a specialized service professionals company, diversity and inclusion among both employee-partners and suppliers plays a critical role in the Cintas company culture.
Lynn Boyd, HR Manager for Cintas’ St. Louis location, works hard to make sure the company’s corporate diversity model has an impact on the local community’s workforce. Lynn supports the recruiting efforts and leadership development for the company and is responsible for working with the employees and leaders at her location to identify ways to support healthy team cultures. In 2014, Cintas was named as one of the World’s Most Admired Companies by Fortune.
“Cintas is always looking for new ways to find great talent for our team,” said Lynn. “We have benefitted from the partnerships developed with diverse businesses and suppliers to better serve our customer base that is itself richly diverse.”
That’s when Cintas met with MERS Goodwill to learn more about the organization’s job training and employment services. As a proud member of the United Way committed to serving diverse communities, MERS Goodwill fit the Cintas model.
Lynn then met with Katie Nanney, an Employment Specialist for MERS Goodwill’s Project Grow Program, to share information about Cintas’ employee culture and discuss job opportunities for Katie’s clients.
“Project Grow is a comprehensive employment services program specifically designed for the deaf and hard-of-hearing,” remarked Katie Nanney. “Similar to MERS Goodwill’s other programs and services, Project Grow supports individuals with barriers to find and maintain employment.”
Within a few weeks, Katie’s client, Michael, was presented as a potential candidate for a job opening at a Cintas warehouse. Lynn met with Cintas’ Plant Manager, Dave Skaggs, and found he had experience partnering with organizations like MERS Goodwill. He had also been involved in the deaf community for a number of years, so Dave was eager to have Michael on board and wanted to make sure he felt part of the team.
Having an employee who is deaf or hard of hearing presents a unique set of challenges for any employer, and Cintas wanted to guarantee a safe and comfortable work environment for Michael. Before Michael’s interview process even started, MERS Goodwill held ongoing training and educational sessions for Cintas in order to fully prepare the company for the addition of Michael to their team.
MERS Goodwill’s Project Grow Program provides interpreter services for the first 90 days of a client’s employment where that time is spent learning how to communicate with Michael and ultimately weaning off using a daily interpreter. Because Cintas is responsible for the interpreter services after the first 90 days, Lynn wanted to make sure Michael’s transition would be seamless. As soon as she found out Michael would be joining her team, Lynn partnered with Cintas’ internal safety department and learned how other locations accommodated individuals with disabilities in the past. Safety is a way of life at Cintas and Lynn wanted to make sure her team was proactive in creating a safe work environment for a deaf employee. One accommodation Cintas made for Michael was having a special light installed in front of the machine he would be operating. In the event of an emergency or scenario where immediate action is required, the light is connected to a fire alarm system and flashes when activated.
“When it comes to hiring an individual with a disability, it’s rare to find an employer that is enthusiastic and so open-minded,” said Katie. “The fact that Cintas not only wanted to learn everything they could about Michael’s disability but invested in his accommodations before he was even hired is truly remarkable.”
The interview process at Cintas is extensive and really focused on team and cultural fit for every job level within the organization. Michael interviewed with Cintas’ Plant Manager, Dave, and Production Supervisor, Zach Van Fleet, who has some training in American Sign Language, before meeting with the company’s General Manager, Quentin Williams, who offered Michael the position on the spot. The team at Cintas put in extra effort to make Michael feel welcome by educating the team about his disability before he came on board. Zach’s understanding of American Sign Language allows him to communicate with Michael and make him feel comfortable on a daily basis. Cintas also created a buddy system to ensure that in the event of an emergency, the team knows where Michael is at all times. In addition, Cintas updated its emergency action plans to include Michael and what his special needs are in the case of an emergency situation.
The leadership team at Cintas had to learn that a real language barrier exists between the written English language and American Sign Language and make sure when communicating policies with Michael the team compensates for that difference. Lynn and her team at Cintas have learned how to explain company policies in a way Michael can understand and they have an interpreter available to come on site if something more complex needs to be conveyed to Michael in order for him to confidently understand. Recently, Michael passed the 90-day mark of being a Cintas employee. He is performing with the same productivity levels as any other employee and is proving to be a valuable addition to Cintas.
“Employers take a chance when they hire anyone because they need to make sure their cultures are ready to make a new employee feel included,” said Lynn. “Hiring Michael was an exciting experience because he is such a perfect fit for our company’s culture, and we’re excited to see him grow.”
MERS Goodwill Client Success Story ~ Paul Stout
Just about anything can be accomplished with a little belief in yourself and a great support system. Paul Stout knows this first-hand. After graduating from high school in 2005, Paul was unable to find and keep meaningful employment. He struggled to find the confidence to overcome the low stress tolerance and nervousness he constantly faced as a part of his developmental disability. That’s when Paul turned to MERS Goodwill for help.
“Despite his shyness, Paul exemplified motivation and dependability from the very first day at MERS Goodwill,” said Leslie Quarles, Director for MERS Goodwill. “He just needed a boost of confidence in the skills he had to contribute.”
Paul was referred by Missouri’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation to MERS Goodwill in July 2012, where he started the Job Exploration Program, which allowed him to explore jobs of interest.
Upon completion of his Job Exploration Program, Paul was referred to work with a Job Developer with MERS Goodwill to begin his actual job search. The biggest obstacle Paul would face was that he lacked paid employment experience and confidence in interviews; but he was excited about the possibility of working in a health care facility performing cleaning and/or dietary tasks that he learned through the exploration process.
Paul began attending weekly Job Readiness Training classes at MERS Goodwill, where he learned how to fill out job applications and what employers expect in a job interview. He learned how to apply for jobs online and was able to complete some applications independently. Just when Paul was starting to break out of his shell, devastation struck in September 2012 when his father passed away.
“When Paul suddenly lost his father, he could have easily given up on his job training and search for employment,” said Leslie. “That certainly was not the case. Paul was learning how to cope with his anxiety and continued going to his classes while caring for his mother. The perseverance he showed during this tragedy is a remarkable indication of his improved interpersonal skills and self-advocacy.”
Paul went on six interviews before landing a job as a Laundry Attendant at The Quarter of Des Peres. On July 23, 2013, Paul started his job at the facility working with a team to collect and clean laundry, dry and fold clothes, sheets and towels, and deliver the clean laundry to the respectful places.
Paul faced some initial obstacles when he started his job, largely the initial fatigue related to transitioning to working and being on his feet all day. Despite that fatigue, Paul would cheerfully report to his Job Developer that he was tired but happy. The new obstacle for Paul was that he was inexperienced in using public transportation and would get nervous with which bus he needed to take to ensure he gets to and from work. With the help of MERS Goodwill, Paul had someone tag along on his bus route giving him the confidence he needed. Paul now frequently uses public transportation, even on his days off.
Since starting his job at The Quarters of Des Peres a little over six months ago, Paul continues to grow in his independence and have increased self-esteem. Leslie sees this in Paul every time he stops by her office to check in on his way to the bus stop.
“I’m happy and more active than I used to be before I came to MERS Goodwill,” said Paul. “This job is what I needed and I know my dad would have been so proud of me.”
MERS Goodwill Hometown Hero Story ~ Lorraine Orr
Those who have had the pleasure of crossing paths with Lorraine Orr remember her as a true hometown hero; a wife, mother, grandmother and friend who devoted an entire lifetime to volunteering in the St. Louis community. Her passion for helping others was undeniable; she served on the Volunteer Board of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the Girl Scout Council of Greater St. Louis where she received a Lifetime Achievement Award.
For Kathy Smith, the fondest memories of her mother, Lorraine, include her involvement with Goodwill. “Since I was little, my siblings and I would often hear my mother talk about the benefits of Goodwill,” said Kathy. “She wanted to make sure we knew the value of donating to Goodwill; it’s not just about giving, it’s about creating opportunities and changing lives through its programs.”
In 1953, Lorraine started volunteering for various organizations, including MERS Goodwill, where she served on the Volunteer Board of Goodwill Industries Services (GIVS) as Vice President of Membership. Even as a stay-at-home mom with four children, Kathy remembers her mother worked harder than anyone she had ever met.
Giving to Goodwill became a focal point in the Orr household that would soon spread to neighboring families. “Mrs. Orr was one of the most enthusiastic door-to-store supporters for Goodwill,” recalls Sharon Summers, Donations Coordinator for MERS Goodwill. “A typical door-to-store pickup requires a certain amount of donations so, on her designated donation day, she would rally people on her street to donate enough items that we needed to schedule a truck for multiple pickups in her neighborhood.”
Kathy’s memories of her mother at home read like a donation workshop; there were always designated Goodwill bags and boxes scattered throughout the house, a tradition that Kathy, her sister and her brothers continue to this day. Lorraine would spend her afternoons hand-writing detailed itemizations of each and every donation to Goodwill, a tedious process that Kathy and her siblings found annoying but would soon grow to appreciate.
As the years passed, Lorraine’s generosity kept growing and her passion for giving was contagious. When Lorraine’s husband retired, he wanted to spend his time helping his wife get organized, but Lorraine had a different plan in mind; she was adamant about continuing to work with Goodwill. “My mother told my dad to find himself a hobby, so he became her assistant!” laughs Kathy. “Being involved with Goodwill became my dad’s passion as well and he spent the rest of his life by my mother’s side helping her.”
When Kathy’s father passed away, the donations continued in his memory; today, a plaque honoring him sits in a garden above a bench at the Goodwill International headquarters.
In 2001, Lorraine traveled to a Goodwill convention in Dallas to receive the Goodwill Lifetime Achievement Award. The milestone was more than just a commemoration of her lifetime of service to the community; it also celebrated Lorraine as a one-year breast cancer survivor.
In June 2013, at the age of ninety-two, Lorraine Orr passed away; yet, her generosity and devotion to Goodwill continued. Lorraine made sure her commitment to Goodwill would help others she couldn’t reach in her lifetime and designated MERS Goodwill as one of her heirs.
For Kathy, the impact her mother has had on individuals and communities is priceless. “Service mentality was where her heart was,” remembers Kathy. “It warms my heart knowing her legacy is helping to build a stronger community.”
MERS Goodwill ~ Michael Penny/Veterans Client Success Story
It’s not every day you find someone who has been called “every employer’s dream” – and that’s just the case if you happen to meet Michael Penny, a maintenance custodian for Carr Square Tenant Corporation in St. Louis. Michael, a veteran of the Vietnam War, heads to work every morning with a smile that is contagious.
After 28 years in the maintenance and warehousing industries, Michael retired. While at home, he found that retirement wasn’t made for him. He took on temporary odd-jobs to fill his time. When his last place of employment shut down its plant, Michael was back at home with bills piling up. He was unemployed, alone and depressed, and it grew worse over time.
One night, Michael saw a television ad for MERS Goodwill’s senior employment program and jumped at the opportunity to apply. The Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) is a federally funded program administered by MERS Goodwill. The program provides subsidized, work-based training to low-income persons age 55 or older that need help finding a job.
“As a veteran, I want other seniors to know that there are career centers out there for you and people are hiring!” said Michael. “The opportunities are there, we just need to take advantage of them.”
In October 2012, Michael was accepted in the SCSCEP program, where he met Madge Witt, a Case Manager for the program. As a Case Manager for SCSEP, and a senior herself, Madge sees age as the biggest obstacle her clients must overcome when she first meets them. Seniors reentering the workforce, especially after the age of 65, often deal with low self-esteem, with a feeling of defeat or lack of purpose. When Madge met Michael, his confidence was low but he was determined and willing to do anything.
“Michael was definitely job-ready, even while he was feeling down,” said Madge Witt. “Michael is polite, he asks questions, and gets a clear understanding of what he needs to do before moving forward.”
Once he qualified for SCSEP, Michael learned how to make a resume, how to apply for jobs, and the basics of how interviews are conducted. He was prepared for what to bring to interviews and what questions to expect. At the age of 67, Michael was soon placed at Carr Square Tenant Corporation for 20 hours of work experience per week, where he excelled in maintaining the entire facility, including two daycares, three bathrooms and event rooms.
Due to his success and determination, Madge challenged Michael and wanted him to apply for other jobs to broaden his skills and find new opportunities. The ultimate goal of the program is for participants to be employed in unsubsidized positions. Just as Madge lined up a new interview opportunity for Michael, she got a surprise from Michael’s temporary employer. After learning that Michael was applying for other jobs, his manager offered him a permanent position outside of the SCSEP Program.
On October 7, 2013, Michael was hired full time by Carr Square Tenant Corporation as a maintenance custodian. Michael not only loves his job, he feels younger each morning he wakes up for work. In fact, Michael is up at 5am for his 9am shift, eager to get into work – always early, of course. Madge is proud of how far Michael has come, using her favorite quote of his to inspire her other clients: “I woke up today and things have got to get better.”
Michael is grateful for Madge and MERS Goodwill’s guidance in helping him find a job. “Without this program, I’m not sure where I would be,” said Michael.
Hometown Hero ~ Yolanda Featherson, Domestic Violence Program
When most people think of Goodwill, they think of the retail stores, but Yolanda’s role resides on the other side of the organization in employment and rehabilitative programs. Yolanda Featherson joined MERS Goodwill in October 2011 as a part-time Retention Specialist and was hired as an Employment Specialist with MERS Goodwill’s Domestic Violence Program in January 2013 after seeing a job posting online.
“Yolanda is such a special addition to our program,” said Christina Holmes. “It’s rare to find an individual who can connect on a personal and professional level with victims of domestic violence, and Yolanda has helped so many women redefine themselves through the job placement process.”
The Domestic Violence Program through MERS Goodwill is the first of its kind in the St. Louis area, and has served more than 100 women this year. Yolanda has worked with nearly half of those individuals, and so far this year she has secured 26 job placements for victims of domestic violence.
“The biggest obstacle that women face coming through our program is that they’ve been broken,” said Yolanda. “Some of these women haven’t considered a type of employment and all they know is they need some income to escape their situations.”
Working with victims of domestic violence is intensive and requires a true balance of understanding the victims’ strengths and employment skills and advocating for their safety to employers. As a partner organization of St. Louis Ending Violence Against Women Network (SLEVAWN), MERS Goodwill has access to a network of individuals, agencies and organizations who provide a variety of additional services in the interest of victims of domestic and sexual violence.
Studies show that access to shelter services leads to a 60-70 percent reduction in incidence and severity of re-assault during the following 3-12 months, compared to women who did not access a shelter. For Yolanda, earning her clients’ trust is one of the greatest challenges of her job. Building trust and a rapport with victims of domestic and sexual violence is crucial to the success and well-being of their future; Yolanda stresses the importance of immediately treating her clients professionally to give them hope to excel in life outside of violence and abuse.
As an Employment Specialist, Yolanda helps her clients properly fill out applications, develops cover letters for potential employers, conducts interview training, and even facilitates outfits and transportation to interviews. Sometimes she’s just needed for a few encouraging words from her clients, but she’s always there for assistance after her clients have found work.
One client, who Yolanda regularly keeps in contact with, came to the Domestic Violence Program after being unemployed for two years. This individual was not a resident of Missouri when she was looking for jobs, and obtaining her diploma from Oklahoma was a major roadblock in finding secure employment. Within a week of working with Yolanda, this individual had a part-time position at Wal-Mart. Her new position inspired her to persevere even more and she is now training to be a general manager at a local food service company. If it wasn’t for Yolanda and the Domestic Violence Program through MERS Goodwill, this individual has said she would have had to go back with her partner and live in a very dangerous situation.
“Goodwill is truly a community-based organization that cares about improving the lives of its neighbors,” said Yolanda. “I am honored to be able to have an impact on someone’s life by giving them hope outside of a life of violence.”
Hometown Hero ~ Brenda Meyer
Brenda Meyer may not be an employee of MERS/Goodwill, but her determination to help others succeed is the epitome of what the organization strives for every day. Brenda is the Customer Service Manager at the Schnucks South City location and has been referring clients of MERS/Goodwill for employment for more than a decade.
In just the last nine months, Brenda has hired six clients from Innovative Concepts Academy (ICA), the only school in the country overseen by a court system dedicated to the education and rehabilitation of delinquent teens. A collaborative partnership with the Saint Louis Public Schools, MERS/Goodwill, and the Family Court-Juvenile Division, ICA’s mission is to increase the protective factors available to these youth aimed at eliminating at-risk behaviors that negatively impact the St. Louis community.
“She has been a blessing to our kids and the program,” said Michael Noll, Job Development & Youth Recruitment Coordinator for Innovative Concepts Academy. “Five of the six ICA students successfully completed their 90-day employment goals primarily because of Brenda’s communication with me and her ability to translate client issues into solutions.”
When Michael connected with Brenda nearly a year ago, he saw an opportunity for his students at Innovative Concepts Academy to not only gain employment, but learn how to build a productive and meaningful life.
“You can tell who has guidance outside of work and who doesn’t,” said Brenda. “These kids want someone who is going to be real with them and a lot of it is just giving them a chance to be themselves.”
Brenda’s brother has a developmental disability as a result of a motorcycle accident and is currently employed through a supported employment program. Witnessing her brother’s success has served as an inspiration for Brenda to be a mentor to individuals with disabilities or other barriers to employment. There are several long-term MERS/Goodwill clients employed at Brenda’s store whom she met through Missouri’s Vocational Rehabilitation services over the last 14 years. When asked about her most memorable employee, Brenda lights up thinking about Richard, who, after 10 years with Schnucks, unexpectedly passed away in his sleep in February 2011.
“Richard had a heart of gold,” said Brenda. “Even though he was older than me, it felt like losing a child when he passed. I was devastated because Richard reminded me so much of my brother.”
Brenda has a letter that Richard’s parents wrote after his passing thanking Brenda and the store for being an extension of their family for so many years. The letter is a constant reminder of the impact both Brenda and MERS/Goodwill have on individuals that need guidance. In fact, Richard’s brother, Tim, stops by the store every week to visit with Brenda.
“Many people don’t realize what MERS/Goodwill does for the St. Louis community,” said Brenda. “I speak to customers all the time who have criminal backgrounds or other barriers to finding a job. When I tell them about the programs that Goodwill offers, they’re blown away at how involved the organization is beyond its stores.”
Client Success ~ Pam Nowacki ~ Supported Employment Job Development
For Pam Nowacki, each day is a celebration of her life’s motto, “never give up.” Pam faces the world with a disability, and less than a year ago she was let go from her job at a local nursing care center after being there for nearly 25 years. With bills piling up and an ailing father that needed care, Pam was referred to the Missouri Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) by a friend and her devastation quickly turned to determination.
Through her assessment with VR, Pam was eligible for Supported Employment Job Development through MERS/Goodwill and started the program in August 2012.
The MERS/Goodwill Supported Employment Job Development services offers job opportunities in integrated work settings where individuals work toward competitive employment. Through the program, Pam attended weekly classes where she learned job searching techniques, how to interact in an interview with a potential employer, how to relate to customers, and how to work as a team with coworkers. Pam’s determination only grew stronger.
“If I had money in my pocket, I’d get a bus pass and would go to classes even if I didn’t have to,” said Pam. “I really wanted a job and to get back up on my own two feet.”
Despite Pam’s motivation, she had struggled landing an interview. Even with 25 years of experience working at a nursing home, Pam was unable to secure an interview with any nursing home in the St. Louis region. It seemed the field Pam had built her career experience around was saturated.
It wasn’t until March 2013 that Pam met her new Employment Specialist, Tom Lemon, who gave her hope. Looking back at the first time they met, Tom reveals, “Pam’s dedication is exceptional. She had over 40 paper applications in hand and business cards to accompany them. When we began to review her case for the first time, I was amazed with how driven she was from the get-go.”
Tom reviewed Pam’s applications and resume to determine what could be done differently to better her chances of landing an interview. Tom noticed that Pam had applied several times in person for the same position at numerous places without any interest from potential employers. So, one of his first tasks was sorting through the piles of Pam’s applications and determining which jobs she would be most successful at obtaining an interview.
Next, Tom tackled Pam’s resume and cover letter, where he corrected a few misspellings or errors in Pam’s email address – little details that made a difference between going unnoticed and landing an interview. Tom showed Pam how to search for jobs on the internet, including taking her old applications and revising them to submit online. He additionally set up a joint email account so they could both track the status of each submitted job application online. This became a good way to pool information together and stay organized and on track in the job search.
Because Pam needed to take the bus to work, Tom would look for employers that would be an easy commute while also taking advantage of Pam’s upbeat, energetic personality. He noticed the Maplewood Walmart was hiring and thought it would be a good fit for Pam.
Tom helped Pam reapply to Walmart on March 21 and by April 4, Pam landed her job interview. Coincidentally, Pam had also been participating in another program at MERS/Goodwill while she was working with Tom. That program is Beyond Jobs, which is funded by the Walmart Foundation. As a part of the program, Pam was working with Rebekah Patterson, Support Specialist through the grant. Rebekah acts as an advocate for Pam, providing continued skills training and ongoing financial education. In their time together, they have focused on Pam’s particular interests in developing her computer skills and budgeting to decrease some expenses.
To prepare for the interview, Tom helped Pam understand how to approach interview questions so she could learn from her experiences and gave her a few helpful hints to put the odds in Pam’s favor. When it came time for Pam’s interview, Tom knew she was ready and could do it by herself. He sat in his car and waited in the parking lot while Pam had her interview with Walmart. The longer Tom waited, the more confident he felt that Pam was doing a great job.
Tom remembers the moment Pam returned to the car, an experience he won’t forget: “She came back to the car with tears down her face saying she got the job – she was hired on the spot!”
Today, Pam is enjoying her busy schedule working over 35 hours per week at Walmart, where she is in charge of the fitting rooms and organizing and sorting clothes. Pam continues to be a role model for individuals faced with disabilities and barriers to employment. She speaks to her former classmates in the MERS/Goodwill class about what to expect when applying for jobs, including how she got her job and answering questions from her peers on her success.
Tom consistently receives positive feedback on how Pam is doing from her employer and fellow MERS/Goodwill employees. “There is a sense of rejuvenation making a difference in someone’s life,” said Tom. “Everyone deserves a second chance and Pam’s making the most of it, that’s for sure.”
Client Success ~ Glenda Leicht ~ Senior Community Service Employment Program
Glenda Leicht, a proud grandmother and hard-working mother of five adult children, heads to work every day with a smile on her face. It may seem as if she has the world in the palm of her hand, but for years, the weight of the world rested on her shoulders. At the age of 60, Glenda was unemployed and busy helping to raise her special needs grandson, while also assisting two of her children and struggling financially following a divorce. Glenda had plenty of experience in accounting and administrative skills, but felt her age was a barrier. Glenda was intimidated and reluctant to seek out job opportunities. Her lack of modern computer skills and confidence in her own abilities led her to seek the help of the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) with MERS/Goodwill.
SCSEP is a federally funded program administered by MERS/Goodwill, providing subsidized, work-based training to low-income persons age 55 or older that need help finding a job. Volunteers are placed at non-profit and government agencies, called a Host Agency, to assist in the organization’s operations working an average of 20 hours per week. SCSEP is meant to act as a bridge to unsubsidized employment opportunities, learning on the job skills needed to find permanent employment.
Glenda ran a decorating and reconstruction business with her husband for 32 years, until financial troubles forced them to close their business. She and her husband separated shortly after, leaving little time and money to care for herself and to help her family. Glenda read an article in her local paper highlighting SCSEP and felt the program may be the answer to helping her return to the job market.
“Glenda faced barriers in the workplace because of her age and she didn’t have the computer skills needed for many work environments, but her biggest barrier was her lack of confidence,” said Constance McCord, case manager for SCSEP.
As soon as Glenda qualified for SCSEP, she was placed at Nazareth Living Center for 20 hours of work experience per week. She began working with Constance and quickly completed skills training provided by SCSEP, perfecting her computer skills and boosting her confidence. Although Glenda started as an ice cream parlor attendant, she had opportunities to demonstrate her administrative and accounting skills. She was quickly given more responsibility including ordering shipments of ice cream, managing the stand and entering key data. She eventually became the part-time receptionist for five different departments within Nazareth.
Well liked and efficient in her duties in the business offices, Glenda became a valued employee at Nazareth Living Center but needed more hours and pay to support her family. Constance contacted Nazareth on Glenda’s behalf, but at that time they were not in a position to offer her unsubsidized employment. Glenda then had to move to another Host Agency to pursue unsubsidized employment; however, she was pleasantly surprised to be contacted two weeks later by Nazareth offering her a job.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today were it not for SCSEP and Constance’s encouragement,” said Glenda. “She really pushed me to break out of my shell.”
Glenda successfully exited from SCSEP in November of 2011, after receiving her first unsubsidized paycheck. Today, Glenda works an average of 38 hours per week as the assistant to the admissions coordinator at Nazareth. She assists in numerous departments at the Center, helping to arrange dinners, the golf tournament and other fundraisers, as well as completing general administrative tasks and brightening the faces of the nurses, residents and visitors she works with.
“I couldn’t be happier for Glenda,” said Constance. “Everything is just falling into place for her. She worked so hard to get this far and it is so encouraging to see that smile on her face when she talks about her career.”
From Left to Right: Michael McMillan, License Collector, Lolita Ramos, Darius Chapman, Department Manager of the Office of the License Collector, Heather Narx, Marnell Strickland, Shonisce Mure, Jahylyn Tillman
Roosevelt High School Graduates Take Future Success Seriously
While many high school graduates are enjoying the summer with trips to the lake, parties and days out in the sun, a very special group of Roosevelt High School graduates are working towards a brighter future. The MERS/Goodwill WIA Youth Program provides young adults with work experience, group education, job development, placement services and helps them to craft appropriate vocational goals. The initiative with Roosevelt, made possible by a close partnership between MERS/Goodwill, SLATE, and the St. Louis Public Schools, has resulted in 94 of Roosevelt’s 2012 graduating class receiving WIA services.
The WIA Youth Program, funded by the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment (SLATE), was developed for youth 17-21. The program gives individual attention to each youth, providing the trust and support needed to succeed. This is the first year that WIA has partnered with the Office of the License Collector. Through MERS/Goodwill and the Office of the License Collector, students in the WIA Youth Program are working with the City of St. Louis to gather experience and knowledge for their future careers.
Michael McMillan, License Collector, and Darius Chapman, Department Manager of the Office of the License Collector, are constantly looking for jobs, internships and volunteer opportunities for the young adults in the WIA program. They also serve as a steady source of advice and counseling for the youth they have taken under their wing.
“When we received funding from SLATE for Roosevelt High School, I immediately remembered Darius’ past work with the SLATE program and knew that the Office of the License Collector would be a great fit for the Roosevelt High School Students,” said Rosalind Mack, Case Manager for the WIA Youth Program.
For McMillan, giving back and helping children and youth of all ages to achieve their educational aspirations has been a 25-year commitment.
“I want to give our interns educational experiences that reinforce good work ethics, expose them to professional role models that will coach and mentor them and emphasize the importance of values and accountability in everything they do,” said McMillan.
The MERS/Goodwill interns have the opportunity to benefit and learn firsthand in the Office of the License Collector. A vast majority of the students over the years, who have this experience, continue their education and secure jobs.
“This is one of the best groups of interns I have ever seen,” said Chapman. “I hope to provide them with an experience so they can become successful within our society. Our youth are very well prepared for the St. Louis workforce.”
On an average day the students are kept very busy. They are gaining a lot of experience, from working in a professional environment to harnessing professional communication and working to stay on top of their tasks. These graduates have bright outlooks on their future, including careers in health care, psychology, working with the City Hall and attending college programs.
“From the WIA Youth Program, I have learned how to tackle the work environment and how to stay ahead of the game,” said Jahylyn Tillman, a student with the WIA Youth Program. “After the program I am going to Harris-Stowe State University and taking classes in Health Care Management.”
Congratulations James Elliott!
It’s a rare occasion to spot James Elliott, MERS/Goodwill Case Manager and Employment Specialist, without a smile on his face. Recently awarded as MERS/Goodwill’s top placement person in the 61 bi-state offices for the past four years, he has lots to smile about.
“James is the epitome of a model employee,” said Dr. Lewis Chartock, MERS/Goodwill President and CEO. “He is constantly working to provide his clients with gainful employment, while creating meaningful and lasting connections with employers. We are proud of James’ accomplishments and excited to see his continued support of our organization.”
Serving MERS/Goodwill Industries of Missouri for more than 12 years, James loves his job and the organization he works so hard for to help its programs become a success. Since 2008, James has successfully helped more than 65 clients find employment each year; boasting a record year of 86 placements in 2010. James contributes his success to his clients and co-workers who continue to inspire and motivate him.
“James and I have been working together for 10 years,” said Erin McCuan, MERS/Goodwill Director of Aftergut Center. “He is respected by his clients, co-workers and Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation. James is tenacious in seeking out employers that want to partner with MERS/Goodwill and offer employment opportunities to our clients. His numbers speak for themselves!”
James is looking forward to another successful year, new opportunities and many more client placements. Congratulations, James, and thank you for your continued dedication and hard work!
Tori Long – Client Success Story – After her high school graduation and wanting to purchase her own car, Tori Long knew obtaining employment was the essential next step. With no work history and unsure about the application process, Tori knew she needed help. Tori learned about MERS/Goodwill’s Employment Services and decided she would give MERS/Goodwill a try.
MERS/Goodwill’s Employment Services, funded by Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation, assist persons in learning new skills and work behaviors that will lead to success in training or finding and keeping a job. The organization provides opportunities to develop employment interests and potential employment by providing employer-based, realistic training in the vocational area of choice.
“Tori is the epitome of what our program is all about,” said Tammy Thurman, MERS/Goodwill evaluator. “It would have been very difficult, if not impossible, for her to obtain employment on her own as she was very shy, had no past work experience, had no interviewing skills, and needed someone to encourage her along the way.”
With Tammy’s help, Tori completed the program, receiving guidance for filling out applications, proper interview attire and a series of mock interviews to fully prepare her. Soon Tori was ready to apply for jobs. The pair focused mostly on entry-level work at various retail locations, particularly cashier positions.
When Tammy found out about a job fair hosted by Dollar General she encouraged Tori to attend and apply. “The hiring manager was very supportive of our program,” said Tammy. “Dollar General is a small store with few employees. I felt Tori would receive the attention and training she needed to succeed.”
Tammy’s intuition was right. After a series of interviews, Tori was hired as a cashier.
Now employed for more than a year, Tori truly enjoys working for Dollar General, and has proved to be an essential member of the team. “I was Employee of the Month my second month working,” said Tori. She has also taken on responsibilities outside of her cashier duties, including training as Manager on Duty. If a situation would arise, she is prepared to fulfill the position.
“Since joining the Dollar General team, Tori has been a true asset to the store,” said Jon Fakes, Dollar General district manager. “Her experience, training and strong work ethic make her a model employee. In fact, she was recently promoted to lead sales associate.”
In her free time, Tori enjoys reading, hanging out with friends and leading a high school youth group. She plans to attend college in the future and enjoys theology and philosophy studies. She is a true supporter of MERS/Goodwill and would recommend the services offered by the organization to anyone.
“I saw Tori blossom into a confident young woman,” said Tammy. “I am proud that myself and MERS/Goodwill were a part of that.”
Standing at a mere 5’3”, Patria Hill is not the ideal basketball player. Her skills, however, say otherwise. Patria greets challenges, often overcoming them with sheer ambition. Despite her pint-size stature, Patria spent her high school career focusing on one goal, playing basketball at the collegiate level while studying to be an English teacher.
In August 2009, while a student at Cahokia High School, Patria enrolled in MERS/Goodwill’s WIA Youth Illinois Program. The program is funded by St. Clair County’s Intergovernmental Grants Department, which serves Clinton, Monroe, Randolph, St. Clair, and Washington Counties in Illinois. Hoping to receive assistance with college searching and applications, Patria also wanted to improve her job skills and resume while working part time through the program. After enrolling in the program, Patria would not only find the aid she sought, but also discover a life-long mentor and friend.
On occasion, Robin Pruitt, MERS/Goodwill Coordinator of WIA Youth – Illinois, would attend group meetings and talk to Patria. Although Robin did not serve as Patria’s main case manager, she took interest in the focus and drive Patria exuded. Their contact was often brief, focusing on Patria’s job readiness training and her employment. Robin, however, was determined to build a relationship with Patria.
One day, the opportunity presented itself. Patria knocked on Robin’s office door and pulled up a chair for a brief chat. After some typical questions, Robin hit the jackpot. “What do you want to do after high school?” Robin asked. “All I want to do is play basketball and be an English teacher,” Patria responded. Patria proceeded to tell Robin about her love for basketball and how she dreamed of playing in college.
Finding a place where Patria could live her dreams became Robin’s quest. There were a lot of options, but Robin’s own alma mater, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in Indiana, rose to the top of the list due to her close contacts there. “I gathered Patria’s basketball stats and was persistent about getting her tapes viewed by the coaches,” said Robin. Within a few weeks, Patria attended a scrimmage with the team.
In the fall of 2010, Patria enrolled in Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, attending on a basketball scholarship. A permanent bond was formed between Patria and Robin.
“She’s an amazing person,” said Patria. “I always call her for advice, even though I’m no longer in the program, Robin still helps me. I use her as a reference for various applications, including school and jobs. She’s helped me out so much.”
Robin’s guidance has been a great aid to Patria, especially when Patria decided to transfer closer to home. As Robin always tells her clients, “Life’s one big do-over. If it doesn’t turn out right the first time, you just do it over. Plan A didn’t work out, now what’s plan B?”
Now attending Lindenwood University in Belleville, Patria plans to return to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods for graduate school. She is playing basketball and studying English education and athletic training. Although Patria’s plan A morphed into plan B, she continues to confidently work toward her dreams. Through her enrollment in MERS/Goodwill’s WIA Youth Program – Illinois, Patria was able to achieve her goals. She continues to utilize the skills she learned and developed through the program.
“Patria’s persistence and ‘never giving up’ attitude make her a great success,” said Robin. “She is a leader among her peers, and seeing her overcome difficulties is a huge inspiration to me.”
Most 9-5 p.m. jobs allow employees to turn off phones, email and thinking caps after hours, enjoying the evening and leaving work for the following morning. Although not required by MERS/Goodwill, Robin Pruitt does not adhere to these social norms. After years of working with teens and young adults, Robin knows the best time for a youth to communicate is when he or she is ready, and that can be any time of the day or night.
“When we get a new client, I always tell them I wake up happy,” said Robin. When the client responds with a questioning look, Robin explains that her phone is on 24/7 and clients are always welcome to call. It is small gestures such as this that make Robin unique and contribute to the tremendous success of the MERS/Goodwill WIA Youth Illinois Program.
“In a field full of compassionate people, Robin stands out,” said Hilary Wagner, MERS/Goodwill Vice President. “Particularly for some young people who may have limited support from family or friends, to have someone like Robin in their corner makes a world of difference.”
Hired in July 2007 as MERS/Goodwill’s Coordinator of WIA Youth Services in Illinois, Robin was to manage programs in Bond, Cahokia, Madison and Jackson Counties. As the years have passed, different grants have allowed Robin and her team to work with various counties in the state. Today the program serves youth in Bond County through funding from Madison County Employment and Training Department, and in Clinton, Washington and St. Clair Counties with funding through St. Clair County Intergovernmental Grants Department.
In addition to overseeing case managers in each county, networking within communities, building relationships with job sites, businesses and organizations, and increasing awareness of the programs in each community, Robin carries a case load of her own. She focuses on clients who need a little extra attention and encouragement, while working with startup grants, like her latest endeavor, the Belleville in-school grant. Unlike the other three counties, the Belleville grant focuses on students in school. Through the program, students receive job readiness training and college planning assistance including help with FASFA applications. Under Robin’s watchful eye and with a focus on education and community service, similar programs of the past, such as Cahokia, have proved successful.
“She’s like a second mother,” said Patria Hill, WIA Youth client – Cahokia. Patria became involved in the Cahokia program in August 2009, and Robin helped Patria pursue her dreams of playing basketball in college. Now at Lindenwood University in Belleville, Patria is shooting hoops while studying English education. “Even though I’m no longer in the program, Robin still helps me. I always call her when I need advice and use her as a reference for various applications, including school and jobs.”
Robin has dreams of her own that she is striving to fulfill. The success of the current four counties and clients of the past, fuel Robin’s hopes of growth for the WIA Youth Program in Illinois. She recently completed applications for new grants, hoping to expand into additional counties. To display the community support, Robin collected more than 30 letters from various businesses and organizations in Illinois.
“Robin is an absolute pleasure to work with, from a grant writing perspective,” said Ben Williams, MERS/Goodwill Program Development Specialist. “She epitomizes what a social service worker should be. She lives it: it’s not just a paycheck.”
Miranda Prince describes her life over the past few years as a true Cinderella story. Her fairy tale starts at the ball, in Miranda’s case, the Demetrious Johnson Charitable Foundation (DJCF).
Homeless and lacking a high school education, Miranda spent her time volunteering at DJCF. Miranda performed various tasks from secretarial to janitorial work, never complaining and always positive. Her infectious smile and ambition won over the hearts of many at the foundation. Through recommendations from DJCF, Miranda was introduced to her glass slipper, MERS/Goodwill, and the connection to her future prince.
Miranda enrolled in Goodwill’s WIA Youth program under the guidance of Rosalind Mack. The Goodwill WIA Youth Program, funded by St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment (SLATE), was developed for youth, 18-21, providing appropriate vocational goals, work experience, group education, job development and placement services. The program gives individual attention to each youth, like Miranda, providing the trust and support needed to succeed.
“At first sight,” said Rosalind, “we had serious basics to work on.” But Miranda was persistent, determined and radiated positive energy. She was always on time, never missed an appointment and had goals for the future. Through the program, Miranda received her GED and was ready to find work with the help of Shera Kulow, MERS/Goodwill Employment Specialist.
During her time in Job Placement, Miranda and Shera explored positions from customer service to office clerk. “I was aware of Miranda’s long-term goals,” said Shera. “Miranda told me she wanted to be a doctor one day.” When an opportunity became available with Barnes-Jewish Hospital as a Specimen Transporter, Shera knew Miranda had found her prince.
“Even though she was willing to work anywhere to make ends meet, I wouldn’t let her take just any job,” said Shera. “She’s intrigued by surgery and helping people live healthier lives. The transporter job description included working in close proximity to doctors and nursing staff; as well as being exposed to various surgeries. I knew Miranda would perform exceptionally well in any position, and this job was perfect for her.”
After filling out her application, an interview followed. Using the skills and knowledge she gained from Goodwill, Miranda was hired. She now works full-time transporting specimen from the operating room to the lab. “I love getting to know and work with the doctors and nurses,” Miranda said. “This is the field I want to advance in.”
Always focused on her next task, Miranda knows objectives are achieved through small steps. Miranda’s next venture is enrollment in school, continuing her education and advancement in the medical field. Her continued achievement is inspiration to all who encounter and work with her.
This Cinderella has found her prince, and is successfully working toward her happily ever after.
When Donnie Edwards and his twin sister were born, Donnie was pronounced dead. As the doctor was filling out his death certificate, he noticed Donnie had started to breathe. He was immediately airlifted to Cardinal Glennon where he spent the first several months of his life. Donnie was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy, an adversity that hit him before he could blink, remaining a constant in his life every day since. Like his birth, Donnie continues to defy odds, always refusing to give up or give in.
When the BP station of Wood River, Ill. closed down in the summer of 2011, Donnie found himself out of a job. After working with another employment agency that wasn’t a good fit for him, Donnie was referred to Illinois’ Division of Rehabilitation Services in conjunction with MERS/Goodwill’s placement services. With the aid of Ashley Albrecht, MERS/Goodwill Director of Vocational Rehabilitation Services – Illinois, Donnie was eager to find work.
From the beginning, Donnie and Ashley agreed that the management and employees of a company were as important as the position itself. They focused on positions Donnie has previously held, dishwashing, stocking and custodial work. Despite a series of dead-end interviews and networking events, Ashley was determined to get employers to look beyond Donnie’s physical appearance.
“I saw Donnie’s potential from day one, but I also saw what employers would see,” said Ashley. “Employers look at a person’s physical ability just as much as a person’s personality and previous work experience. Donnie does have physical limitations and a communication barrier due to his disability; however, he is much more capable than many people give him credit for. He will ask if he needs help, but that is seldom to never.”
Like Ashley, Donnie was focused, positive and learning from each interaction. Using the resume-writing and interviewing skills that he learned with Goodwill’s job programs, along with networking with former BP co-workers, Donnie secured a job at the Fast Track in East Alton, Ill. as a custodian and stocker.
Just 61 days after entering Goodwill’s Job Placement program, Donnie found a job he truly loves. Already knowing a few co-workers from BP, Donnie already had a sense of comfort and acceptance at Fast Track. He enjoys being around people, and likes that his new job allows him to interact regularly with his boss and co-workers, who he describes as “awesome.”
“The people at Goodwill never looked at me like I was different. They have always treated me like an equal,” said Donnie.