Crystal Chandler is thriving at what she calls “the best job I’ve ever had,” with help from her team at Work Opportunities Unlimited (WOU). After a brief hospitalization for depression, Crystal was feeling stable and ready to focus on finding a new full-time position. She learned of Florida’s Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program from a fellow participant at an outpatient program. VR led her to WOU and Independence Works (IW), which provide comprehensive services to help people with barriers to employment find and maintain meaningful careers.

Crystal searched for new opportunities with assistance from Bree Cosgrove, Career Resource Specialist at IW in West Palm Beach, Florida, and WOU Director Jenni Paine. The team considered teaching and summer camp jobs, since Crystal enjoys working with kids and has been an academic tutor for nearly two years. Her job history also includes doing payroll for TV and film production companies, so Crystal researched similar roles on her own. When she came across an opening in finance at Aramark and brought it up to Bree, Crystal says, “She told me that WOU had a relationship with Aramark and could put in a good word.”

While preparing to interview, Crystal admits she was a little nervous. “I had only done payroll previously; I never did a ton of accounting work,” she shares. “But I knew that I could pick up things very easily, so in the interview I said, ‘If you’re willing to teach, I’m willing to learn.’” Crystal was offered and accepted the Finance Manager position at Aramark at the end of June 2023. She works on the campus of Palm Beach Atlantic University, where Aramark is the food service provider. Crystal explains, “We provide all the food service for everywhere on campus that people can get food, and I’m in charge of reporting all the financials that get funneled up from each location.” Starting in the summer before school was in session gave her a chance to complete training and get comfortable with her new responsibilities.

Crystal had left her previous full-time position because it was too stressful, but she feels working at Aramark is the complete opposite. “When the semester started, I expected things to be really crazy, but it was nothing compared to some of the chaos that I’ve seen in my other positions…Even though it’s a lot of work, it’s low stress overall. Our motto is, ‘We aren’t curing cancer here, we’re just doing food services, it’s okay,’” she laughs. “Even on the days that I had to work late it didn’t feel stressful. I really credit that to my boss, the team he’s put together here, everyone’s energy, and having the right trainings in place.” She also stays organized with a long checklist of tasks for each workday. “All of these things help make sure that I am successful here.”  Her kind and friendly coworkers are an added bonus; as Crystal says, “Sometimes at a job people are nice because they have to be nice, but people here really care about each other.”

During Crystal’s first 90 days on the job, her WOU/IW team held retention meetings with her boss. Crystal recalls, “Bree was a kind of liaison. It allowed my boss to speak freely, and he had overall positive feedback. She also explained to him how she works with people with different barriers to employment.” Jenni then stepped in to help Crystal ask for an accommodation for her seasonal affective disorder. She says, “During the winter months, shorter days and lack of sunlight affect my sleep cycle. Getting a little wiggle room with my start time in the morning was the only accommodation I needed, but Jenni helped me navigate that conversation.” Jenni says, “Crystal made a great impression on me. She has learned so much about herself and how to advocate for what she needs to be successful. She has been very open about what she needs and has taken a primary role in learning about her mental health and communicating what she needs in a professional way.”

Now Crystal is a permanent Aramark employee with a great salary and benefits! Bree states, “I had a wonderful experience working with Crystal. She is intelligent and communicates effectively and has a willingness to learn and grow. It was a pleasure to see her confidence grow as she learned to advocate for the support she needed, not only from myself but also from her supervisors and team members at Aramark. Her supervisor and management team were very supportive and understanding, which is exactly what we look for in a worksite when helping our participants in their job search.”

Crystal definitely agrees that Aramark is supportive, recalling an article she read that featured the company as one of the top employers for people with disabilities. “They actually value people who are neurodivergent, who have different limitations, different needs. That warmed my heart. I love where I work, and there’s so much growth opportunity within Aramark as well… My boss told me in my interview, ‘I’m not hiring you for this position, I’m hiring you for the next position.’ I feel like having this type of full-time position is really going to help me be able to master my craft, and also build on it.” She’s also meeting personal goals, since her schedule allows her time to exercise more and take her therapy calls during the day. “Something as simple as just waking up on time, and getting to work on time, I’m able to accomplish because my commute is short and I’m going someplace that I’m happy to be.”

Crystal has great advice for how people with mental illness or any sort of barrier can find their way to success in the workplace. “It’s so important to be open with what you need. Be vocal, so you can find the right fit.” She believes that candidates should embrace the assistance of an organization like WOU. “If you need an advocate for conversations, then take advantage. Also, I already knew how to interview, but I still did a mock interview with Bree, and she honed in on some things that I could say to polish it up a little bit. Whatever their process is, stick with it, because they want to put you in the best possible position for you. I’m a living, breathing testament to that.”