Johnny’s long, successful career is a fabulous example of humble hard work and dedication to serving others. He credits Work Opportunities Unlimited (WOU), which helps people with barriers to employment find and maintain meaningful careers, for getting his start. Johnny pays it forward by inspiring other WOU clients, as well.

Johnny originally turned to WOU for help finding a position that would use his Master’s degree in Rehabilitation Counseling. He was supported by multiple team members, including Sue Abel, Regional Director for WOU and Independence Works. Despite his extensive education, Johnny’s job search was painstaking as he went to approximately 20 job interviews over the course of several months. Johnny uses a wheelchair, and as such, felt that he had “to prove that I’m just as good or better than any other candidate.” Sue shares, “When I think of Johnny, the word tenacity comes to mind. From the first day of meeting Johnny, he has always exuded positivity.”

Sue and her team were determined to help Johnny be successful, no matter how many interviews it would take. They took him clothes shopping and taught him how to tie a tie and press his suit. Johnny had applied to a variety of potential employers, including an unemployment office, hospitals, and rehabilitation facilities. A low point in the process was when an interviewer didn’t want to hire Johnny because “he was concerned how I was going to go to the bathroom myself. I was taken aback. Of all places, it was a rehabilitation hospital, where people with TBIs and car accident injuries rehab before they return home. I applied for that job because I do that for myself, and that was what my degree was in.” As a result, Johnny’s positivity started to wear thin. “I told Sue I was bad luck. It was very frustrating, and I felt bad for the people who were helping me,” he recalls.

Then, to Johnny’s relief, he secured a placement as an academic advisor at Palm Beach State College, a community college in South Florida. This was a great fit for Johnny, who says, “I always wanted to be a career coach or job counselor.” He worked part time for the first two years before he was promoted to a full-time employee, with insurance, benefits, and additional salary. After another two years, Johnny was promoted to a senior staff position in disability services. Now, Johnny is in the Veterans Affairs office, assisting veterans with their classes and schedules, and processing the necessary paperwork to ensure their GI bills cover their tuition and housing allowance. Johnny loves guiding his students toward achieving their two-year degrees or certificates, whether they are ready to enter the workforce or plan to transfer to a four-year institution. He tells them, “My happiest day is when you leave me.”

Johnny has maintained his position at Palm Beach State College for over 12 years. He has been able to purchase his own home and modify it to accommodate his wheelchair. He enjoys a very close relationship with many of his coworkers, even accompanying a coworker on a cruise who had an extra ticket when his girlfriend broke up with him right before the trip. “He said if I don’t bring you, I’ll have to go by myself. I paid him for the ticket, and we went all over the Caribbean.” Working remotely during the COVID lockdown was as disheartening for Johnny as many others, so his therapist recommended a service dog. Johnny was thrilled he could afford his beloved Murphy, a mini golden doodle, as well as all the necessary training. Murphy is the “campus chief morale officer” at his workplace; Johnny jokes, “I think some of my students want to see him more than me.” Murphy is spoiled by his girlfriend and family and turns heads while riding in Johnny’s kayak at the beach: “People don’t say hi to me, they say, ‘Cute dog!’”

While volunteering as a guest speaker in WOU job clubs and mentoring individual clients, Johnny has shared his advice about securing employment with a disability. He says, “I work so hard at my current job because I know how hard it was to get the job. I have 2 bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree, and I’m going to get a part time job? I tell the people in job club that that was the best decision I ever made. I got to prove myself and work my way to full time. I tell them, even if they offer you something that is below where you should be, that’s okay. Take it. Show them that you’re better than the job they’re offering, and hopefully you get promoted… I always try to motivate anyone with any kind of disability, whether you can see it or not, you have to present yourself in the best light.” Sue says, “Johnny would give people encouragement and hope, and as a peer role model for others, he made a huge impact.” Johnny is happy to help anytime Sue asks, sharing, “Sue has always been a good friend. She’s always checking in on me, making sure that I’m okay.” For the past five years, he also gets to see Sue at board meetings. Sue recalls, “It was exciting when the opportunity came up to have a former customer of our services join our Board at Independence Works – I immediately thought of nominating Johnny. He always makes helpful suggestions and is an active participant.”

“When all you do is sit at home, and you don’t have a purpose or goal, that can be very depressing,” says Johnny. “My ultimate goal always with every client with Work Opportunities, or helping on the board, is seeing them get jobs because I believe it gives them motivation and self-worth.” WOU agrees wholeheartedly, and wishes Johnny continued success!