Work Opportunities Unlimited (WOU)’s recent expansion into Pennsylvania is off to a great start! WOU began providing services in the greater Harrisburg community in 2021, starting first with Pre-Employment Transition Services to students referred from the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) in partnership with school districts. Capabilities then expanded in 2022 to adult Supported Employment services with VR as well as Supported Employment and Community Participation Supports services to adults referred from the Office of Developmental Programs (ODP). WOU’s Harrisburg PA office, located in Carlisle, officially opened in late 2022.
It took a little over two years to officially start providing services in PA, between the extensive research required, the rigorous approval process from the state’s referral agencies, as well as COVID-related delays. Regional Director, Iskedar Ayalew, led WOU’s expansion efforts for WOU to become an approved provider with both OVR and ODP. She shares that WOU had considered expanding into PA given its adjacency to Maryland, a prominent state that WOU has been serving since 2007. PA’s philosophy to employment – emphasizing employment for all – aligns well with WOU’s mission. Research proved a shortage of service providers in the state, particularly providers like WOU that offer a community-based business model and customized employment. As a result, WOU has received a warm welcome from all referral sources in PA, and the state’s counselors and agency representatives have been very responsive.
Salsi Mane, Director of Career Services, oversees and manages the services provided by the Harrisburg team. Director-in-Training, Summer Turner, relocated from WOU’s Springfield, MA team to her home state of PA in the midst of WOU’s research process, which Iskedar says “made it even more attractive to proceed with our expansion efforts.” Summer’s connection to the community and her familiarity with local employers and businesses gives the team a networking edge. Her personal connections also led to the hire of the other current two PA team members, Career Resource Specialists Ashley Ulrich and Brandy Ross. As Salsi says, “Summer knows how to use the power of connectivity not only for internal referrals, but also to find employment for individuals served.” PA’s strong team is a big advantage, says Iskedar, because having “solid team members on the ground means WOU will deliver services of high quality and build rapport with all the different referral sources.”
PA’s team continues making phone calls and meeting employers to build connections with local businesses. Salsi and Summer attend provider meetings to connect with organizations that may have clients in need of employment support, and they schedule presentations for employers, parents, and counselors to share WOU’s capabilities in person. Salsi says, “We have had some successful, customized and unique job placements, which is also helping us market ourselves to other employers in the community.” Summer, Ashley, and Brandy have secured placements that are tailored to each client’s interests and goals, including jobs in clerical positions, at automotive shops, in videography, and at bakeries. Iskedar says, “the team has established themselves as credible, and are achieving a lot of customized outcomes that counselors really haven’t seen before.”
The successful expansion into PA is due in large part to the support from fellow employees across the organization. Iskedar says “everyone has a vested interest and is cheering on the PA team to succeed.” Representatives of WOU management dedicate time to visit the team onsite and ensure they have all the tools they need to succeed. Iskedar and Salsi’s strong working relationship has also contributed to the new office’s success, as they have collaborated harmoniously to oversee and expand various WOU territories over the last twelve years.
As capabilities grow, so do discussions about adding new PA team members and expanding territories served within the state. Iskedar says, “We are getting demand to expand to every territory they have in PA, and we are doing our due diligence to make sure that we understand what the need is… Over the years we are going to have thousands of placements. It’s a win for the state and its clients, as well as for WOU and its team on the ground.” Salsi agrees: “I’m really excited for the growth that we are seeing in PA. Every month is getting better and better!”