(Bethesda, MD) – Cooking is an art form that many people enjoy and whether you aspire to be the next great chef or the best home cook you can be, the devil is always in the details. Culinary greatness requires the freshest foods, the right tools, a commitment to quality and lots passion. No one knows more about “what it takes” than Michael Leonard, a kitchen assistant at La Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda.
“As a man living with autism, Michael thrives in environments that require routine and meticulous attention to details,” says Jebbeh Givens, a Career Resource Specialist at Work Opportunities Unlimited. “His job is an important one; he’s responsible for prepping the classrooms for the students that come to L’Academie, often organizing and stocking twenty individual workstations, three times a day.”
“Michael wanted a job in his community,” says Givens. “He was referred to us by the Developmental Disabilities Administration. Work Opportunities specializes in breaking down the barriers to employment for people living with disabilities. Michael has significant skills to offer an employer and it was our job to find a work situation where he could contribute in authentic ways. L’Academie – Bethesda was the perfect match.”
L’Academie – Bethesda is the original home of the renowned L’Academie de Cuisine, one of America’s top professional schools in the Culinary and Pastry Arts.“The Bethesda campus is the recreational arm of the culinary school; its where the non-professional cook has an opportunity to learn from the same chefs teaching at our professional culinary school,” says Sederick Crawley, Campus Director of L’Academie de Cuisine. “It’s a wonderful place where people, who simply love to cook, can take their skills to the next level. It’s fun and casual for the students but it requires us to do our due diligence in the classroom, and this is where Michael shines.”
Michael spends his days fastidiously prepping classrooms for students, making sure that every surface is immaculate, that the students have the right tools, that the fresh vegetables and meats are packaged properly and stored at accurate temperatures, he makes sure the inventory in the stock room is accurate and that the laundry is done.
“We have a set of standards that we must abide by,” says Crawley. “When you’re working with food, every detail matters, and Michael pays attention to every detail. We meet each morning as a team, develop a list of tasks to be done and then we set Michael free. He sets his own routine, he’s extremely consistent, extraordinarily focused and he’s always right on the money in terms of getting the job done. I don’t have to worry when Michael is here; he has such a strong work ethic and he’s incredibly honest. I trust him implicitly and consider him one of our best employees.”
“Work is a pretty powerful construct,” says Givens. “It has a way of leveling the playing field. Michael works shoulder to shoulder with his co-workers, often outpacing them. Work also has a way of empowering people and changing perspectives. Michael is more confident and a bit more social; having this job has made a huge difference in his life and in the lives of his co-workers as well.”
“Michael has been embraced and is part of the academy family,” says Crawley. “He eats lunch with us, he communicates with different individuals; if no one told you he had a disability, you wouldn’t know it – it doesn’t limit him at all. People no longer view him as having a disability; he’s just Michael, our co-worker… it seems to me, that’s the way it should be.”
Meet Aaron Stone, Work Opportunities Unlimited Team Member
Good employees are the backbone of any business. Employees are the heart and soul of a company; they’re essential for success. For employers, finding and recruiting top talent can be difficult. It often requires a little creativity and an ability to think outside the box. Enter Work Opportunities Unlimited and Sarah Heffner.
Sarah Heffner is a Career Resource Specialist for Work Opportunities Unlimited; creativity is her middle name. Each day she rolls up her sleeves to find successful job matches for people looking for work and employers looking to maximize their talent pool.
“I work with clients that have been referred to Work Opportunities from the New Hampshire Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation. I also work directly with employers that have hiring needs, so my day is all about building reciprocal relationships within the community.”
The people that Heffner works with have different challenges. They may have been out of the workforce for a period of time, they may (be learning disabled or) have a learning or physical disabilities, perhaps they’re shy or on the autism spectrum, but the common thread that they all share is ability; they all have important skills to share.
“What I love about my job is I get to dig a little deeper, to find out exactly what an individual has to offer, what’s important to them, what they like to do… and then I turn around and make the connection with an employer who’s looking for good employees.”
“I’ve been working, or partnering with Work Opportunities Unlimited for over three years now,” says Ken Chaput, Club Supervisor at Crossmark, a sales and marketing services company that specializes in product demonstrations at local Sam’s Clubs. “This job isn’t for everybody so I really value that Sarah does her due diligence. She takes the time to learn about the position I have available, and all that it entails, and then thoughtfully and methodically picks the best candidates to interview for the job. She’s fully committed to the hiring process; she wants us all to succeed.”
“It’s all about the right fit,” says Heffner. “We pride ourselves in making the right connection and if not, what can we do to make it happen? Work Opportunities is all about finding another way. We work to help employers meet their goals and we give people an opportunity to demonstrate what they can do, if given a chance. It’s creative problem solving at its best.”
At twenty-five years of age, Jessica Burnham never held a job in her life. She suffers from anxiety and is painfully shy. “As we got to know one another, I learned that despite her shyness, Jessica was willing to try new things and that she also interacts well with people,” says Heffner. “When we talked about the employment possibilities that might work for her, Jessica said she’d be interested in working food demonstrations. I thought it could be a good match, so I contacted Ken. The interview was really difficult for her but Ken saw something in Jessica and he hired her. What’s amazing, is the moment she put on the Crossmark uniform – pow! – she was transformed.”
“After the first week, I knew we had someone special in Jessica,” says Chaput. “She was making sales on the very first day and even though she didn’t have a full understanding of the job at that time, she took the initiative to help out. She demonstrated natural leadership skills and her co-workers responded.”
“Seventy-five percent of the time, it’s the connection to the person demonstrating the product that drives the sales at Sam’s Club,” explains Chaput. “Educating the consumer with product tips and ideas, engaging with them, being friendly and providing strong customer service, impacts the bottom line. So Jessica’s work is really important; she’s working hard and influencing sales in significant ways.”
Within a few months of her hire, Jessica was promoted to a Lead Event Specialist at Crossmark. “I’m pleased to say that Jessica is the second placement from Work Opportunities that I’ve promoted, and both of them were Sarah’s candidates,” says Chaput. “My turn-over rate is much less working with Sarah; it’s her approach to the process that makes the difference. I know when she contacts me she has viable candidates and she’s going to make sure that it works for all. I like to give people a chance, regardless of their background or personal challenges, because I believe that everyone has something to contribute. As an employer, you’ve got to be open to the possibilities because that’s when you’ll find your best employees.”
Artist Jon Edwards, a Success Story
(Beverly, MA) – Perched on the water’s edge along the north shore, the small city of Beverly is quickly gaining a reputation as one of the premier spots for artists in Massachusetts. With its newly claimed Beverly Arts District, the city is teaming with artists – musicians, painters, performers, visual artists, illustrators, painters… among them is Jon Edwards, a talented photographer, and a man who happens to be living with intellectual disabilities.
“Jon’s work is amazing,” says Lisa Tierney, co-owner, along with her sister Deb Sumner, of The Art Exchange in Beverly. “It fascinates me. He’s got an incredible eye for photography; his images have a way of re-introducing me to my community, from a new and fresh perspective.”
Jon Edwards has practiced his craft for years, but it wasn’t until recently that he started to display his work for all to see. It took a little doing, along with some help from Christina Doore, a Director-in-Training with Work Opportunities Unlimited. “We specialize in breaking down the barriers to community based employment for people with disabilities,” says Doore. “Jon had been working in a more traditional job but it really wasn’t a good fit for him. I’d seen his photos at a school craft fair and was blown away by his talent. In that moment, I knew that we had to look beyond mainstream employment and explore more creative opportunities for him; it was time for him to share his art.”
“Work Opportunities Unlimited believes that all people can work; that diversity in the workplace is essential,” says Doore. “We operate from the premise that people with disabilities deserve to work independently in their communities; to succeed and develop their abilities in authentic ways.”
Enter, the Art Exchange. “We’re all about supporting local artists,” says Lisa Tierney, co-owner of the exchange. “We display the work of over fifty artists and craftspeople; our shop displays canvases (both oil and watercolor), glass, pottery, jewelry, etc. When Work Opportunities first approached us, they told me about this wonderful artist. Shortly after, they e-mailed me some photos taken by Jon and I thought, ‘oh my gosh, he’s amazing.’ To be completely honest, at the time it didn’t register that he was disabled, I was so taken with the quality of his work. We agreed that they would bring Jon by the Art Exchange so that we could meet.”
“Jon was apprehensive at first,” says Doore. “He has a speech impediment and he was unsure about his ability to represent himself. He was also pretty nervous about displaying his art in such a public setting.”
“Jon came into the Exchange; it was so great to meet him. We talked about his work and agreed that he would be a contributing artist,” says Tierney. “We don’t like to turn artists away; we believe in giving someone a chance. We also believe in inclusion. Jon’s disability is a non-issue. He’s an artist, his images are beautiful, we like his work and want to display it, it’s as simple as that.”
“The Art exchange was the stepping off point for Jon,” says Doore. “They opened the door to possibilities for him and now he’s building connections through his art. And what’s amazing, is that within a few days’ time, the Art Exchange called looking for more of Jon’s images. His prints, cards and framed pieces are all pretty popular.”
“Having Jon’s work in our gallery provides us all with an opportunity to learn more about the people that we’re living next to; everyone brings something to the table,” says Tierney. “Jon’s point of view, in terms of this community, is stunning. He may not be able to express himself in more traditional ways but through his photos, we’re able to see a bit of his soul; we see his true self.”
Alex Knight’s Success Story
Alex Knight eats, sleeps, lives, and breathes cruise travel. His passion for cruising has been a driving force in his life; each year, family vacations were spent on the high seas exploring destinations throughout the Caribbean. It’s during these trips that Alex took some serious notes. He’s curated an extensive knowledge and understanding of the industry from cruise schedules to shore excursions, ports and dining options. Alex is a virtual walking encyclopedia of all things cruise. He’s also a young man living with Lowe Syndrome.
As an infant Alex was diagnosed with Lowe Syndrome, a rare genetic condition that’s characterized by vision problems, kidney issues and intellectual disabilities. While Alex is legally blind and has some cognitive impairments, it doesn’t stop him, not one bit, especially when it comes to traveling. So it was no surprise when Alex graduated from high school that he wanted to channel his love of cruising into a career path.
Enter Work Opportunities Unlimited. “We believe that all people can work, that everyone has something to contribute,” says Michael Amons, a Career Resource Specialist with the company. Amons dedicates his days to breaking down barriers and opening the doors to community-based employment for people with disabilities. “Alex was referred to us right out of high school. He told us that he wanted to pursue a career in travel. We didn’t think that was too much to ask.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is more than double that of people without disabilities. “Work Opportunities wants to change that,” says Amons. “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. Each and every day, we work to create opportunities for success in the workplace for job seekers like Alex. We also work in close partnership with employers that have staffing needs and are looking for skilled workers.”
“When Alex came to us, we helped him develop a career plan and a resume, we scoped out different opportunities for him and reached out to area employers,” says Amons. “Within four months of beginning his services with Work Opportunities Unlimited, his hard work paid off; Alex was introduced to the business that would change his life – Atlas Travel.”
For thirty years, Atlas Travel has provided business and vacation travelers with state-of-the-art travel solutions. It’s also a company that likes to be involved in its community. “We like to give back as much as we can,” says Elaine Osgood, CEO of Atlas Travel. “Work Opportunities contacted our HR department and the director brought the possibility to the executive team. When we heard about Alex and his passion for cruising, we were pretty intrigued. At the time, we weren’t looking to hire but we gave him a two-week trial, and to be honest, we were blown away.”
Alex works 20 hours a week as a Vacation and Cruise Support Agent. According to Osgood, he participates in all areas of the business but his primary task is quoting cruise prices for on-line customers. “The knowledge base that he has, as it relates to cruising, is truly amazing. The level of detail that he has at his disposal about all the different cruise lines, their destinations and what they offer, is absolutely phenomenal. Alex can tell us if a vending machine on-board a particular vessel sells Coke or Pepsi – he’s that good – so he’s an incredible resource for even our seasoned travel agents.”
“I’m so glad that we could partner with Atlas, to show them what Work Opportunities does and how committed we are to our clients,” says Amons. “This is a perfect job match for Alex. He’s working very hard and loving every minute of it, and while Work Opportunities is there to support Alex on the job each day, the real star in this story is Atlas Travel. They saw Alex’s potential and they gave him an opportunity to succeed and develop his abilities in an authentic way. For the first time in his life, Alex has been able to demonstrate that his knowledge and skills have value; that he can make a difference. The broader picture here, is that he’s a part of something larger than himself. Alex is integrated into the fabric of his community. He’s part of a team of people that he cares about – and that care about him – and he’s contributing in significant ways. From the Work Opportunities perspective; it doesn’t get much better than that.”
The Wood Brothers, a Success Story
Integrity, vigilance and helpfulness are the foundation for success at Securitas, an international security solutions firm specializing in protective services. Employing 330,000 people in 53 countries, Securitas leaves nothing to chance; they hire the best of the best and they found just that in the Wood brothers.
“There’s a lot at stake here,” says Aarin Miles, Human Resources Recruitment Specialist for the global company. “We’re responsible for the safety and security of our client’s employees, their property and the work campus. All Securitas employees go through an extensive back ground process; they are incredibly well vetted. We look for individuals that are talented, but they also must have a commitment to the community and a willingness to help others. We hire individuals that have a solid history, a track record of good decision making, of not putting themselves or others in danger. Robert and Dustin Wood exemplify exactly what we look for in an employee.”
The Wood brothers were referred to Work Opportunities through the Bureau of Rehabilitation Services in Maine. “They both have minor learning disabilities that are almost undetectable,” says Aaron Stone, a Career Resource Specialist for Work Opportunities. “The disability is not recognized by Dustin and Robert, and Mrs. Wood doesn’t want her sons to be labelled. She says her sons are fully capable of working full time, so she declined disability funding and support, but she did accept help with finding employment for them.”
Dustin and Robert are seriously involved with their community; they are Eagle Scouts and volunteer fire fighters. Robert is a fire arms instructor, Dustin is a junior ranger for the Lisbon Police Department and both brothers are actively involved in their church. When it came to employment, the driving force for the Wood brothers was they wanted to be of service to others.
“In addition to supporting people in the workplace, part of my job is to connect with area employers,” says Stone. “We actively seek out reciprocal relationships and try to create solutions for employers. I met Aarin Miles at a job fair, he was looking for recruits for Securitas that had clean criminal records, were invested in the community and that were trustworthy. I told him I had a candidate or two.”
“Robert started with Securitas first and then Dustin followed shortly after,” says Miles. “Their primary function is as a point of contact for employees entering the site, they check credentials, do some patrolling and check on-site safety compliance. Their doing a great job, their disability is a non-issue. We feel that if an individual is able to meet our requirements and has a strong desire to work, we’re here to give them a chance.”
“We hit the jackpot with Robert and Dustin,” adds Miles. “Work Opportunities took the time to understand my company’s needs and culture, and provided us with two quality employees. The Wood brothers have storied histories of commitment to community through Scouting, volunteerism, local charity work and prominent roles in their church. Every day they demonstrate the core philosophies at Securitas. From my perspective, it doesn’t get much better than that.”