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Bridging the Gap

by Sandi Busch & photos by Turner Photography Studio

The Arc of Washington County creates integrated and customized supported employment for those with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Jamie works behind the scenes at Sanders Cookie Jar Bakery but his contagious smile and willingness to help would shine in the front of the house at this Pennsylvania Avenue shop as well. When I first met him, he quickly offered to demonstrate his responsibilities — explaining every detail as though training a new worker. It sounds like something any employee might do, but Jamie isn’t just any employee, and his journey to this point has been anything but ordinary.

Jamie is one of about 200 adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities who participate in the Supported Employment Program at The Arc of Washington County, Inc. They’re lucky to be in the program because The Arc is leading the way in personalized employment. The basics are there — the participants get training, help finding a job, and ongoing support in the community — but the way it’s accomplished presents the difference between merely finding work and finding a purpose in life.

“Every person deserves meaningful work,” says Staci Jones, senior director of day and employment services. “We go through a lengthy discovery process to determine what each person wants to do, then job developers take the individualized plan and search for the right employers.” This is where the paradigm shifts. They do not go looking for random openings that exist so they can plug their program participants into a job. Instead, they partner with businesses to create a customized job that fits the participant while filling a distinct need for the employer. Sometimes a new position is envisioned and developed, other times an existing position is the perfect fit.

The Perfect Fit

Once Jamie’s job was finalized, he was paired with a job coach to help the transition into the community. Amanda Rossen was his coach when he first started at Sanders Cookie Jar Bakery. In the beginning, she stayed for the whole shift, learned the job along with him and made sure he knew what to do. “Jamie had great spirit and liked to joke with the staff,” she said, so his socialization — which is a vital component of the program — went smoothly. As Jamie became comfortable with the tasks and routine, Amanda phased herself out. In a very short time, he took directions directly from his boss, and worked independently.

“Some people assume that everyone who has a disability is limited, but they just need a chance to show what they can do. I’ve been amazed at the progress Jamie has achieved.”

—Perry Sanders, Owner/Manager/Baker at Sanders cookie jar bakery

Jamie’s boss — Perry Sanders — is the third generation to run the family bakery, which has been in Hagerstown since 1965. Perry has been the owner, manager, and baker for the last 21 years. He describes Jamie as a personable, productive, and reliable employee who is willing to learn new tasks. What Perry says about working with people who have disabilities is a testament to the magic that happens when the community pulls together.

bridging the gap“Some people assume that everyone who has a disability is limited, but they just need a chance to show what they can do,” says Perry. “I’ve been amazed at the progress Jamie has achieved — up to par or even better than others in the same position.” The bottom line being fostered by The Arc is this: When jobs are customized so each person can thrive, while providing value to the business, there’s no telling what can be achieved.

On the day I visited Jamie at the bakery, another employee worked with intense focus at a large table not far from Jamie’s workstation. I watched him roll out pastry dough, add fruit fillings and create delightful little pastries. Later I learned that he was also a person with special needs who started as a dishwasher, which is Jamie’s current job. Now seven years have passed, he’s still there, and thanks to Perry’s guidance and teaching he has become an assistant.

Two words come up frequently as Perry talks about these employees — progress and gratification. Perry keeps saying he has seen progress he never would have imagined and how gratifying it is to contribute to that experience. One look at Jamie makes it clear the feeling is mutual.

More Than Part-Time Work

Most members of the supported employment program work part time, so The Arc fills the gap with day programs that continue to build on strengths while providing opportunities to become members of the wider Hagerstown community. Their Day Habilitation services engage Jamie and his co-participants in socialization, ongoing vocational training, learning activities, and vibrant community-based interaction.

“We go through a lengthy discovery process to determine what each person wants to do, then job developers take the individualized plan and search for the right employers.”

—Staci Jones, Senior director of Day and employment services

While the program includes adults of all ages, The Arc is also focused on helping youth get the vocational training and guidance they need as they leave school. This is a critical role requiring significant effort. In 2014, the high schools in Washington County enrolled 644 special education students. As they turn 21 and age out of special education services, they leave a supportive environment and enter a world that offers very little by way of help. The state Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA) certainly has programs and community-based supports, but funding is limited and people in crisis or with extensive needs are the only ones likely to receive immediate help.

As The Arc spearheads integrated employment programs, their goal is to partner with the Hagerstown community and small businesses that can benefit from hard-working individuals. If you’ve ever wondered about the experience and whether you should participate, take inspiration from Jamie and Perry.

Jamie says he’s proud to be working and his happiness is tangible. As for Perry, he gained a dedicated, steady worker — someone he can depend on to do what needs to be done — in a position that’s usually a headache due to high turnover. Progress is easily measured in skills and increased independence, but Perry summed up the difference in Jamie’s quality of life in one word — dignity.