Musically Yours, Allan Benoit– a WOU Success Story
(Laconia, NH) – Allan Benoit of Laconia was diagnosed with glaucoma at the age of 28. A progressive disease, over time glaucoma has robbed him of his vision. “I can see enough to get into trouble,” says Benoit. “When I lost my eyesight, I had to regroup. I knew I needed a second career.”
Benoit had been a tool and die man working as a designer in a prototype department. “I used to set up and program the logistics of making aluminum parts for the Intel Pentium One processor but without my vision, that was no longer possible. So, I got my degree in business and reached out to New Hampshire Vocational Rehabilitation for help with job placement. That’s how I met Sarah. She switched on the light that changed night to day.”
Sarah Heffner is a Career Resource Specialist and Job Developer for Work Opportunities Unlimited. “We specialize in helping people who have barriers to employment access the workplace. Allan had been looking at traditional job opportunities for a while but it just wasn’t working for him, that’s when Work Opportunities stepped in. We do things a little differently; we look at the whole person. I asked Allan about his life, what his passions are, and that’s when he mentioned his music.”
“I’m a singer-song writer,” says Benoit. “I used to belong to a band called American Know How. We toured up and down the Eastern Seaboard performing in seedy bars where the stage was behind chicken wire, to venues with crowds of 5 thousand or more people; we did it all. I’ve been writing music since I was 15 years old, it’s always been a big part of my life so when Sarah asked me if making a living from music is something I’d like to do again, I said, “Hell, yes!”
“Allan told me about his life as a musician. He played with some heavy hitters both in the studio and in live performances. He’s made a few CD’s and still plays with a band when he can… that conversation was an “aha!” moment for me. Allan’s the real deal. So, we talked about what he’d need to get started; a new guitar, microphone, PA system, all the necessary tools to take his music on the road. I approached Voc. Rehab., his VR counselor listened to his music, he took it to his co-workers and they agreed that he had the talent to get it done.”
“I couldn’t get over how fast things started moving,” says Benoit. “Before Sarah, it was meeting after meeting, and a long and involved process to find work but then she stepped in, talked with Scott my VR counselor, and got the ball rolling.”
“While VR would support this effort, Allan had to take the initiative, he had to drive the bus on this,” says Heffner. “He had to do his research to come up with quotes and justify why he needed a specific piece of equipment. They really put him through the paces. His first purchase was his guitar, and I think it was at that point he knew we were really serious.”
The process took about 2 months but with updated equipment on board and his degree in business in hand, Benoit had a plan in place. He started networking and booking “gigs”.
“I’m scheduled to play at local venues around the Laconia area, a few nursing homes and senior centers are on the docket too,” says Benoit. “I’m also in a new band called Stolen Thunder. We’re a trio that’s looking to expand. We have local musician Dennis Allard on the lead guitar, slide guitar and banjo; Shawn Chase plays bass guitar and I do my thing. We’re all songwriters so our shows will be a four in one experience; we’ll play as a band and then each of us will showcase our work as soloists. Stolen Thunder is already booked through the summer and into the fall.”
If Benoit could write the script for how his new reality would play out, it would also include building connections in Nashville and a record deal, “country music is kind to you age-wise, as long as you can write a good song, and people can react to it, you’re golden,” and he’d focus on live performances as well, “I love performing and I love the banter with live audiences.” Spending his days writing songs that other people record, is right up there too.
“Music was in the background for so long, and now, it’s in the forefront again,” says Benoit. It’s truly a dream come true. All I can say is that I met Sarah once and she listened to me, she really listened to me, and then she worked her magic, and I think she’s amazing. Sarah and Work Opportunities and New Hampshire Voc. Rehab. made this opportunity possible and I’m incredibly grateful.”
A Success Story Trifecta at the Boston Polo Club and Equestrian Center
(L to R) WOU Clients/Boston Polo Club Employees Tommy Gravel and Jonathan Muldoon pictured with Mark Tashjian, Manager of Boston Polo Club
(Georgetown, MA) – Tommy Gravel, Wilbur Bruce and Jonathan Muldoon are an important crew at the Boston Polo Club and Equestrian Center in Georgetown, Massachusetts. As barn maintenance associates, they are responsible for the daily upkeep of the horse barn. From mucking stalls to watering the horses, their work is important; it’s the basis for the good health of the fourteen polo ponies and therapy horses that call the Boston Polo Club home.
As working colleagues, Tommy, Wilbur and Jonathan share a few things in common; a strong work ethic, a love of animals and a passion for keeping things neat and tidy. They also happen to be people with disabilities that have overcome barriers to employment.
“We don’t focus on the barriers or the disability, we focus on a person’s ability,” says Stacy Tofuri, Career Resource Specialist with Work Opportunities Unlimited. “Work Opportunities believes that all people can work; that competitive employment not only provides meaningful activity and personal resources, it also opens the door to allow the development of friendships and relationships. For many, work is fundamental to quality of life and key to a sense of self-worth. Just like everyone else, people with disabilities want to work, they want to be part of their community. We know this to be true and we don’t think it’s too much to ask.”
As a Career Resource Specialist, Tofuri dedicates her days to breaking down barriers and opening the doors to possibilities for people with disabilities and employers alike. She’s a master at preparing people for the workplace; she helps individuals develop job skills, helps her clients foster friendships and natural workplace supports, and she coaches them while on the job, but Tofuri is also a resource for employers. “We build reciprocal relationships with employers; they have employment needs and we have a skilled employee pool that wants to work.”
Perched on 78 acres of farmland in Georgetown, MA, Boston Polo Club is dedicated to introducing people to the sport of polo. Whether a novice with little to no experience, or an advanced equestrian, all are welcome. The facility also offers an Equine Assisted Psychotherapy program and Polo for Veterans.
WOU client/Boston Polo Club Employee Wilbur Bruce at Boston Polo Club
“I was impressed that there was a program like Work Opportunities,” says Mark Tashjian, owner, head instructor and manager of Boston Polo Club. “I was looking for barn help and I thought it would be a good fit, as long as they could do the job. Tommy, Wilbur and Jonathan clean the stalls, fill the water buckets inside and out, they sweep, clean up outside and around property, they put hay in horse’s stalls for when they come in at night, they help unload hay and horse feed, they organize the barn; it’s a big job. These are the essential tasks that need to be done on a daily basis, for the overall care and well-being of the horses.”
The Boston Polo Club trio honed their skills by first volunteering at the Lowell Humane Society and Strong Water Farm. “A lot of people come to our program with no work experience at all,” says Tofuri, “which can make placement a bit more challenging because they have little experience in a work environment. Volunteering is a great way for people to learn and develop all types of work and social skills that will help them on the job.” From the volunteer experience, the three men quickly stepped into jobs at an equestrian center in Westford, MA.
“When they came here, I had to tweak what they did to accommodate our facility but I was pretty surprised by their skills; the guys are detail oriented and they’re on top of it,” says Tashjian. “I’ve been working with Tommy, Wilbur and Jonathan since the end of December and it’s been great. The fact that they’re dependable is one the biggest aspects. They do a good job; they may take a little longer but the quality is on par with everyone else. They’re focused on the job, they don’t get distracted, they’re not on their phones all the time, and best of all, their positive attitudes fit really well with my core values of living with a positive attitude, giving back and empowering people.”
“Tommy, Wilbur and Jonathan are committed workers who bring value to the Boston Polo Club,” says Tofuri. “They’re accomplished individuals who knock it out of the park every day. Their presence in the workplace helps fight the stigma that surrounds people with disabilities. They’re doing the exact same job and they’re doing it alongside everyone else – at Boston Polo club, nobody treats them differently, they’re held accountable, they’re just one of the guys and that’s the way it should be. Simply by having a job they’re engaged in their community and through that engagement they’re changing perspectives and changing attitudes which, when you think about it, is pretty powerful.”
Meet Keith! His Great Job in Security is a WOU Success Story
(Jupiter, FL) – Keith Grieser is a pretty amazing young man. Actually, determined would be a more accurate way to describe how Keith lives his life. Born with cerebral palsy, Keith has little control over his body. He uses a wheelchair to move about his world and he requires the use of an adaptive audio device to communicate. Upon first glance, many would think that the odds are stacked against him, but remember, Keith is determined. Case in point – when Keith graduated from Seminole Ridge High School in 2015 he was determined to walk across the stage to accept his diploma; it would be the first time he walked in fourteen years.
When Keith graduated from high school, he was bound and determined that he was going to live as independent a life as possible. Central to his plan was finding a job.
“Keith’s counselor at the Florida Division of Vocational Rehabilitation reached out to us,” says Susan Scaperotto, a Career Resource Specialist with Work Opportunities Unlimited. “We specialize in helping people with disabilities find community based employment.”
Work Opportunities Unlimited believes that all people can work, that everyone deserves opportunity and can make a contribution. “Keith made it very clear that he wanted a job and we didn’t think that was too much to ask,” says Scaperotto. “His situation was pretty complex so our team decided to hold a brainstorming/networking session. We invited his family, his VR counselor, people in the community that knew him, human resource managers…our goal was to make a list of all the tasks that Keith could perform and places we could envision him working. We wrote it all down and came up with a hundred ideas for Keith. Then we whittled it down further by looking at companies that offered those types of jobs, we networked with local businesses people and started making phone calls.”
“We made a great resume for him and were able to schedule a few interviews right away but the employers were too hesitant to hire him; they couldn’t see the possibilities and what he was capable of doing, so we decided to stop applying to run of the mill places. We knew that top of the list for Keith, was a job working in the security sector. All we needed was someone to open the door to him.”
Winter home to the St. Louis Cardinals and the Miami Marlins, the Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, is the only stadium in Florida to host two Major League Baseball teams and the only stadium in the country to host four minor league teams. “This year new security protocols, mandated by Major League Baseball, were put in place,” says Alex Inman, the Assistant General Manager at Roger Dean Stadium, “so we were looking to hire 50-60 new employees. When Susan contacted us, we spoke about Keith’s abilities and his limitations. We believe in opportunity for all but we also had to do our due diligence; Keith had to be able to do the job. We interviewed him, took everything into consideration, focusing on what he could do, and we hired him.”
“We have upwards of four thousand people in attendance during spring training and Keith works on the front lines,” says Kyle Schafer, Event Services Coordinator at the stadium. “He’s positioned at one of three entrance gates and his job is to prepare our visitors for the security screening by informing them about emptying their pockets and moving through the metal detectors. Keith pre-programmed his audio device with a script we provided, so when visitors’ approach him, he taps the button on his headrest that engages the announcement. Our visitors hear it as they pass by, and they’re prepared. Keith’s efforts help to streamline the process and he’s making the work load a lot easier for his co-workers.”
“Through this job, Keith has grown in confidence,” says Susan Scaperotto, “You can see it in his face. He knew what he wanted; he wanted a job and he was determined to get it. Now, he has friends and co-workers, he even has natural supports in place at Roger Dean stadium so he’s comfortable with not always having me there to support him. As a matter of fact, these days when I show up, he’ll ask me what I’m doing there! Keith is part of his community and he’s contributing in meaningful ways; you couldn’t ask for more than that.”
“A lot of people praised us for hiring Keith but this isn’t just a feel-good story,” says Inman. “We want everyone who comes to the stadium to have a positive experience and the safety and security of the fans, the players and coaches is paramount. We feel that Keith is doing an important job and he’s a positive force. He’s inspired our team for sure; he’s been a pleasure to have here, everybody loves him.”
Meet Andrew, BJ’s Team Member Extraordinaire and WOU Success Story
(Stoneham, MA) – Andy Jackson loves the fine art of organizing. It gives him great satisfaction to have a place for everything and see everything in its place. Andy also happens to love lending a hand and helping people, so each day when his two passions collide, it’s a win-win for BJ’s Wholesale Club in Stoneham, Massachusetts.
“Andrew is one of the most professional, hard-working BJ’s team members we have at our club,” says Dan Brady, Senior Operations Manager at BJ’s in Stoneham. “He comes in everyday with a smile and a can-do attitude and he gets the job done right, the first time.”
As a person living with autism, Andy thrives in environments that require routine and meticulous attention to the details. At BJ’s, customer service, carts and recovery are his domain. “We worked to carve out a position for Andy that’s a blend of job tasks that he really enjoys,” says Tom Carr, a Career Resource Specialist for Work Opportunities Unlimited. Top of the list is helping customers get their purchases to their cars. Andy also collects shopping carts and returns them to the cart carousels, and he recovers merchandise that customers put aside and returns it to its proper place in the store. “Andy likes to have things well organized, he really enjoys repetitive tasks, he’s very schedule oriented and he knows his job inside and out, so when he arrives at BJ’s he hits the ground running.”
Competitive employment is a highly-valued activity in our society; it provides meaningful activity and personal resources. Creating opportunities for success in the workplace is a motivating force for Work Opportunities Unlimited. “We believe that all people can work. We believe in diversity in the workplace and that everyone should have a chance at opportunity, so my job is to work to break down the barriers to employment for people who live with disabilities. I help my clients develop career goals, we work on pre-vocational and job retention skills, often I provide life skills training, and of course I coach them while on the job to help them maximize their success.”
With a little support and guidance from Carr, Andy is a thriving member of the BJ’s team, so much so that he’s now providing employee training for new hires in the Carts/Recovery position. “Andy is making his mark at BJ’s. He loves to share information and he’s really patient as a teacher.”
“There is a very clear correlation between diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and employee engagement,” adds Carr. “I can’t go a week without a co-worker approaching me to tell me how great Andy is. He’s always happy on the job; the greeters rave about him and how polite and quick he is to lend a hand. He wants to help, he wants to work. Andy’s positive attitude makes a huge difference, he helps people get through their day.”
“What Andrew brings to our team day in and day out is immeasurable,” says Brady. “It’s one of the reasons that he recently earned the “Members First, Team Member of the Year.”
Paula M–Access to more than just movies at Cinepolis
(Jupiter, Florida) – As we head to the movie theaters this holiday season, the common thread among us all is that we’re looking for a truly great story; a narrative that can expand our emotional bandwidth. One of the season’s best stories can be found at Cinepolis Jupiter, but it’s not a film that will appear on the big screen, rather it’s a tale of true grit, determination, compassion and support that’s happened behind the scenes. It’s a reminder of the goodness within.
Paula Mirabella has Muscular Dystrophy. She requires the use of a wheelchair to navigate her world. Paula has fought long and hard to find a job in her community; one that would utilize her skills and foster her love of people. “Paula wanted a job,” says Jenni Paine, a Career Resource Specialist with Work Opportunities Unlimited, “and we didn’t think that was too much to ask. Paula is amazing and has incredible skills to share, so we rolled up our sleeves and got to work.”
Jenni Paine spends her days breaking down the barriers to employment for people living with disabilities. “Our goal is to change the world of work. We operate from the premise that people with disabilities deserve to work independently in their communities, just like everybody else. We believe that all people can work, that everyone has something to contribute. Paula was eager to find a job but she was running into a lot of road blocks, says Paine. “She’s in wheel chair at all times so it was limiting the jobs that she could do.”
After months of hard work and opportunities that dissolved or didn’t quite fit, Mirabella was hired by Cinepolis. “She was hired to work four hours a day as a Box Office Agent. It was the perfect match that utilizes her customer service skills in a genuine way. She loves to engage with customers, she troubleshoots any problems they may have and she works hard to make a visit to Cinepolis a great experience for all who walk through the doors.”
It was a dream job come true for Paula and it wasn’t long before the general manager took note and approached her about expanding her hours. “This is where things got a little tricky, and a little awkward too,” says Paine. “Paula was incredibly pleased but she had to explain that there was an on-site barrier that prevented her from taking advantage of his offer.”
Cinepolis Jupiter, home to both traditional and luxury cinema experiences, is a new, state-of the art theater that’s handicapped accessible, but in the restroom Paula needs a special lift to help her transfer from the wheelchair. “It’s special adaptive equipment that most public restrooms don’t have,” says Paine. “To compensate for this challenge, she would wake early in the morning to build in enough time so that she could have her breakfast, something to drink and use the bathroom before heading to work. Then she’d work her shift without anything to eat or drink because she didn’t want to be faced with the consequences of not being able to access the facilities. Just imagine needing to use a restroom and not being able to, until you get yourself home. The amazing thing is when she told the general manager, his response was ‘what can we do?’”
Mirabella explained that there was a lift system that could be installed in the restroom but it would be quite the undertaking. The manger asked again, “what do we need to do to make this happen?” That’s when Mirabella sprang into action. She approached Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) and asked if they could assist Cinepolis with the challenge of installing the adaptive lift. Cinepolis Corporate Office gave their approval and VR sent over the architect to see if it was even feasible.
“What’s amazing is that Cinepolis has been through some management changes since the project began,” says Paine, “but every manager, including the current GM Shawn Temme, continued to support Paula and the goal of getting the lift installed.”
“Paula is an incredible person,” says Temme. “Given the challenges she’s dealt with in her life she’s super kind and thoughtful and she always wants to do more regardless of her disability; I never worry about the front of the house when Paula’s on duty. She’s the first person that welcomes our guests, she’s always there with a big smile and a positive attitude. I wish I had a dozen more employees like her so, from my perspective, it was important to maximize Paula’s time here and make sure that everything was in place for her to do her job. I didn’t start the process with Paula but she has worked hard to knock down those barriers that were an issue for her, I feel strongly about supporting her.”
After months of approval processes, safety and building impact studies by engineers, planning procedures, and collaborative efforts with VR, construction got underway. It took about a year but the adaptive equipment is now in place.
“It was definitely worth the investment of time and resources,” says Temme. “For me it was always about what I see in Paula. Her disability is a non-issue, I value her as individual that is beyond capable. I see someone that makes a difference and can do the job. I know what a quality employee is and if you find a quality person like Paula, you better do all you can do to hold on to her.”
Jensey’s Success Story
(Boston, MA) – There is a very special place in Boston, where play and learning collide, imaginations soar and fantastical worlds are built. LEGOLAND Discovery Center Boston is a LEGO® universe like no other; it’s the ultimate indoor playground for lovers of LEGO®, the iconic “building blocks” of so many childhoods. “We’re all about playful learning,” says Jennifer Chopelas, Human Resource Coordinator at LEGOLAND. “We have LEGO® brick pits, a 4-D theater, a LEGOLAND Discovery Center Master Model Builder on site, a Build and Test area; everything is based around LEGO®. It’s where kids come and use their creativity, to have hands-on fun, to collaborate and problem solve and to have their curiosities piqued. And it’s not just for kids, adults are really into it, too.”
The success of LEGOLAND Discovery Center Boston is built, in part, on the iconic LEGO® brand, but it’s also steeped in the hard work of many–the incredible team of people that are committed to creating “remember when” moments for the children that visit. Among them, is Jensey Gonzalez of Charlestown, MA.
“One of the things we strive for is a clean, comfortable facility,” says Chopelas. “Working with kids we need to provide a safe environment that’s sanitized and germ free. Jensey plays an integral role in making sure that happens. As one of our best custodians he’s proactive, a hard worker and an important member of our team. We depend on him to get the job done.”
Jensey Gonzalez is a young man living with intellectual disabilities; he also has a form of epilepsy. “It doesn’t stop him,” says Dan Kent, a Career Resource Specialist at Work Opportunities Unlimited. “Jensey is a motivated guy and he made it known that he wanted to work; he wanted a job where he could use his skills and interact with people. At Work Opportunities, we believe all people can work, that everyone has skills to contribute. Our specialty is breaking down barriers to employment and helping people with disabilities access the workplace, so, we rolled up our sleeves and got to work.”
“Work Opportunities Unlimited reached out to us and we set up a meeting,” says Chopelas. “They explained the process, and the work that they do; we thought it would be a great partnership. We told them what we needed and they recommended a great match in Jensey.”
“Initially, Jensey was supported while on-the-job but now he works independently,” says Kent. “Jensey knows exactly what’s expected of him and how to get the job done. He works out on the floor and in the back of the house, keeping things clean and organized. Jensey is one of the hardest workers that they have; he’s part of the team, which is incredibly important. He’s not just a client from Work Opportunities, Jensey’s a true LEGOLAND employee and everyone sees him as that; it’s fantastic to watch.”
“What’s great about Jensey is he greets each day with a huge smile on his face,’ says Chopelas. “He’s very approachable and he interacts really well with our visitors. Jensey takes pride in what he does and it shows in the quality of his work; he does a fabulous job. In fact, he’s one of the reasons that we continue to partner with Work Opportunities. We’ve had really great success with the program and have hired two more people as a result. We couldn’t be happier.”
“The administration has been so supportive at LEGOLAND – so welcoming,” says Kent. “It shows how having good role models and model employees has made work possible for other people.”
“You know, when you hire someone with disabilities, you do great things,” adds Kent. “You not only give the individual an opportunity to grow and learn and earn a living and build self-esteem and make friends outside of their family – all things that we take for granted – but most important of all, you build awareness and you change perspectives; you change the way in which others view people with disabilities. You create a better cultural awareness of what someone with disabilities can do and the impact they have in the workforce – and that’s huge.”