It started with a job fair and a chance, and this one chance has made a world of difference for many. When the Florida Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) established a relationship between Work Opportunities Unlimited (WOU)–also known as Independence Works in Florida–and the Palm Beach Marriott Singer Island Resort & Spa, all it took was one manager at the resort to step forward and test out the partnership to see that it was a match made in heaven.

Joe Leddy (Founder, WOU), Nancy Falero (Spa Manager), Robin Hainsworth (HR Manager) Michael Nixon (Marriott Team member), Theresa Gagnon (Marriott Team member), Leisa Sheperd (WOU CRS)

VR is a federal and state funded program designed to support people who have a barrier to employment, whether physical, developmental, or emotional. Those who qualify for the program become clients of vendor partners such as WOU, who work to find meaningful employment for the client with a local area employer. The program is beneficial for both the employer and the client – an employer gets an employee who is eager to learn and happy to be working, and the client receives valuable vocational experience and on-the-job training (OJT).

Leisa Shepherd is a WOU Career Resource Specialist who attended the initial job fair organized by VR. She recalls how the relationship between WOU and the Singer Island Marriott began when Nancy Falero, the spa manager, decided to take the opportunity to hire a WOU client. Leisa says, “Nancy was the first one to raise her hand, and then after the other department directors saw how well it worked, everybody was on board and wanted to participate.” Clients receive OJT, but, more importantly, they become part of the family-like culture that defines the Singer Island Marriott, which allows them to blossom.

Since that first successful hire, the Singer Island Marriott has trained and, in some cases, hired several WOU clients for various jobs at the resort, with the goal of placing the client in a position that complements their interests and abilities. Human Resources Director Robin Hainsworth has played an integral role in interviewing WOU clients and matching them with jobs that best fit their abilities. Jenni Paine,  WOU Director in Training, explains, “Robin talks to the clients about what they want to do, and she tries to place them in the hotel where they will be successful and a good fit. She has been flexible in placing people in different areas—beach, poolside, restaurant, front desk, housekeeping, human resources, etc.—and, in some cases, moves them around until they find their niche.”

One of the most successful placement areas at the resort has been in the spa. Nancy says, “For me, I think that this program brings out a lot of empathy and the team has learned that even those with barriers to employment should be treated like anybody else when it comes to job performance.” These opportunities for WOU clients and the Marriott is two-fold: it builds skills for clients and creates an atmosphere of inclusion.

Robin explains how hiring individuals with barriers gives them the opportunity to work in an environment where they are not looked at differently, which has impacted the Marriott’s workforce and clientele. “Our employees like the fact that we support individuals with barriers, and our guests do, too.”

This attitude of inclusion has created a win-win situation for everyone, and that attitude has come from the top down. General Manager Roger Amidan firmly believes “it’s our opportunity to give these folks an opportunity to come out and feel very valued.”

The successful relationship between WOU and the Singer Island Marriott is in part due to the time spent with WOU clients–to train them and treat them as any other employee. Leisa notes, “The directors and the staff, they pitch in and join in the work with all of their team members. Singer Island Marriott seems like more like a family. They really care about everybody who works there.”

WOU Career Resource Specialist Kristen Giordano believes it is this type of environment that allows the WOU clients to thrive. She explains the story of one WOU client named Theresa, who has “really grown and blossomed since being there and she’s learning some amazing skills like answering phones, booking appointments, interacting with guests, and performing a lot of different tasks. I told her she’s gained so many skills with this one job alone that are really marketable for her.” Developing these skills helps clients gain confidence while receiving OJT, which can lead to full-time employment opportunities in the future.

Another WOU client, Michael, works as a lobby ambassador at the Singer Island Marriott, though he has held other positions at the resort. He loves his job at the Marriott because everyone’s heart is in the job. He believes, “You can’t work there if your heart is not in it and that’s what I love about the job and about the business.” The resort guests would concur as Michael notes how the personal connections he is able to make with them create a lasting impression. They return and remember their conversations with the resort employees like Michael.

Sometimes, a little creativity is needed to match WOU clients with their interest areas. One WOU client named Spencer, who is a zoologist, needed OJT. A lot of employers were closed during COVID, so finding OJT for Spencer was tricky. Leisa contacted the Singer Island Marriott to see how a zoologist might be able to gain OJT at the resort, and he was able to collect data about the iguanas that were infiltrating the pool areas since there were no resort guests. Spencer collected data and made a presentation for Robin to highlight the Marriott’s involvement in the ecosystem and community. Together, WOU, its clients, and the Marriott are able to create opportunities that might not be possible elsewhere. Leisa adds, “It’s the employer recognizing that the client, as an individual, is doing so well that giving them opportunities to do more. That’s what the Marriott does.”

Taking care of each other rings true with WOU clients. Herold is from Haiti, and he relocated to Florida after a hurricane. He is deaf, does not speak English, and did not use any formal sign language. These challenges make it very hard for Herold to be given a chance to work, but through WOU and the Singer Island Marriott, he was placed to work in the kitchen where he was given his chance to shine. Leisa explains that WOU provided two interpreters for him, and he is now reading and doing things he would not have been able to do in Haiti.

Even through the pandemic, the Singer Island Marriott remained open and provided  OJT for its clients at WOU. In fact, the resort (and Robin, in particular) received recognition by the VR at its virtual 100-year celebration in November of 2020 as an outstanding employer committed to hiring people with disabilities. WOU and its clients would agree that the recognition is well deserved.

The right people in the right places make all the difference, and this is no exception for the community of people who have worked to bring this partnership to life. What started as a job fair has blossomed into much more than just an opportunity to provide jobs to people with disabilities. Its impact has reached a multitude of people by providing a good example for what can be achieved when everyone works together.