Sun Shine: Seven Hills jobs program up and running

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That clock on the wall — the one your boss sets five minutes slow — winds down on another work day, each tick toward the promised land slower than the last, and all you can think about your job is, retirement can’t come soon enough.

Safe to say many of us find ourselves in this paycheck purgatory every now and then, maybe every Friday … or Monday … you know how the expression goes. All that daydreaming about Social Security checks and Vero Beach, yet nary a thought about what we get out of our jobs, how much we really benefit from a 9-to-5 of inanity that is anything but to some folks.

How easy it can be to take employment for granted — even today, in a constantly evolving global economy and job market — and to minimize all those things we forget we take home with us for the weekend: self-worth; responsibility; a sense of accomplishment (not every day, this one!); camaraderie; an ever-growing set of skills, both vocational and social.

Then you take a ride to Seven Hills Foundation’s Aspire! facility — still with that new-car smell, from its spring 2014 opening — a sharp right off Route 9 before the Airport Mini Mart and the impending wilderness of Leicester, and most of the way up Goddard Memorial Drive. There you might find a few people who have a very different idea about what it means to have a job.

More precisely, this is where they’ll start their day, the 15 adults with physical or mental challenges from age 22 to 35 who represent the first class in the agency’s new Up and Out program. From there these folks will head to a day of classes and training at “The Lodge,” Seven Hills’ CareerSource facility on the back side of Green Hill.

And in a few months many, if not all, of them will be working at regular, competitive-wage jobs with firms across Central Massachusetts. That’s what Up and Out is all about.

James Acker, employment programs manager, stands with Seven Hills Aspire!'s first Up and Out class.

Mark Henderson / Worcester Sun

James Acker, employment programs manager, stands with Seven Hills Aspire!’s first Up and Out class.

“[Most participants have] proven that they have a strong motivation to work. I think that’s the one prerequisite that we really [push] for before we accept an individual into Up and Out, because that’s the one thing we really can’t teach and can’t create,” said Trudy Dould, vocational rehabilitation counselor. “If the individual isn’t motivated to work then it’s just not going to work from the get-go.”

Up and Out participants must successfully complete a six-week training course in one of five disciplines — clerical, customer service, auto detailing, janitorial and kitchen — before graduating to three to six months of group-supported work with an on-site coach. If all goes well there, as soon as they’re ready, graduates will rise Up to the job search and interview phase, then Out to their new, competitive-wage gig.

“We do have a good core group right now of individuals who are really committed,” said James Acker, the Aspire! employment program manager. “They ask every day, ‘When are we going to be working again?’ ”

Seven Hills has been putting the people it serves to work for years, but most were relegated to piece-rate workshop jobs, which are no longer funded, and menial labor in group settings. Or many would be more interested in the ancillary classes and activities of Aspire! and Community Based Day Support.

As the needs of area employers and the greater economic landscape have changed, so have those of the administrators of Seven Hills’ employment initiatives.

“We want to get away from the notion that a parent comes in with their child and says, ‘I want them stocking shelves at Walmart or a supermarket. We don’t want to limit their abilities, so we want to get away from that and offer some better options for everybody.” — James Acker, Aspire! employment programs manager

The trend toward workplace preparedness and the development of skills that are these days dulled by the grind of videos, gaming and social media is not lost on them.

They’re called soft skills, but they’re hard to teach.

“It’s more so the interpersonal, advocacy, communication, problem-solving,” Dould said. “There’s a huge focus on that anyway in the employment world, but then we have individuals who maybe are on the autism spectrum that they struggle with that on top of any other symptoms they’re experiencing … so it’s trying to set the tone for, If this happens, then this is how you respond.”

Seven Hills’ employment programs are populated by referrals from its own affiliated group homes, not to mention caregivers and families, but also many area schools.

“We found way too often that an individual would come to us from a high school or some kind of facility, and they’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, that person is definitely employment-ready’ … [but we’d] come to find out they had no kind of employment skills,” Acker said. “That’s when we definitely found a need [to measure skills and prepare people differently].”

“There are some individuals that are going to be just at group-supported sites. That’s really where they succeed, it’s where they really probably should be because they need a little bit more of the job coaching, they need a little bit more supervision, they’re not going to be truly independent,” Dould said. “They need that support system and that structure, and that’s OK.

“What we tried to do is look at the individuals who were maybe outgrowing the group-supported work site, who could be more independent, who were showing us those skills that they were ready to move on from there.”

Indeed, the first class of Up-and-Outers, which started Aug. 31 and will graduate at the end of this week, were cherry-picked from existing, less-intensive work programs, where they were eligible to work up to 15 hours per week but could pick and choose when they wanted to punch in.

“We want to get away from the notion that a parent comes in with their child and says, ‘I want them stocking shelves at Walmart or a supermarket,’ ” Acker said. “We don’t want to limit their abilities, so we want to get away from that and offer some better options for everybody.

“We want it to be an actual job situation for the individual.”

It was through a series of seminars that introduced them to a similar program in San Francisco, and work with Boston-based Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI), that Acker and Dould were inspired to build a new model of employment attainment for the Seven Hills community.

“It can be really difficult, honestly, on our side of things a lot of times. We’ve heard, ‘Oh well, they have a disability, so it’s OK [if they do something wrong],’ and really we get more frustrated by that than I think anything else with the employers because it defeats the purpose. … We’re saying, ‘No, it’s not OK.’ They should be held to the exact same standard as everybody else because otherwise it’s discrimination in a different way.” — Trudy Dould, vocational rehabilitation counselor

Months of brainstorming and a slick slideshow later, and the clock was started on Up and Out.

“We never really hit any [resistance from leadership]; everybody loved the concept of it,” Acker said. “We were kind of overwhelmed a little. We weren’t prepared for it to be accepted this well.”

They focused on building curriculum around services the local business community might be looking for. Another tip from San Fran: The smaller the learning environment, the better. This helps fortify the focus of individuals who may be swayed by the many extracurricular activities offered or overwhelmed by the shear space at the Aspire! facility.

“Everybody [except two new Aspire! members] that we pulled for the initial Up and Out program were individuals that had been working in our group-supported sites, so we did have at least a basis of what their skill sets were, what their interests were,” Dould said. “We knew a good amount about them — how they worked, how they learned.”

What Dould, Acker and their crew of job coaches and instructors maybe weren’t entirely prepared for was how much social skills training would be required to advance most individuals to the next step.

Rumor-mongering text chains, fickle Facebook feuds and the like have been a consideration for Seven Hills staff, much as such distractions affect almost any 2015 classroom. It’s important to remember, too, that the baseline from which these folks start is on a different plane.

“So it’s trying to use that as a teaching tool to say, OK, if this was real life, if this was a workplace, these could be harassment charges,” Dould posited of a hypothetical teachable moment.

Seven Hills-3

Mark Henderson / Worcester Sun

A dry-erase board outline learning priorities in the janitorial classroom at Seven Hills’ Up and Out training facility.

“It can be really difficult, honestly, on our side of things a lot of times. We’ve heard, ‘Oh well, they have a disability, so it’s OK [if they do something wrong],’ and really we get more frustrated by that than I think anything else with the employers because it defeats the purpose,” Dould said. “We’re trying to get them to perform minimum-wage work if not more, but at least to be able to put forth as much effort as to get paid minimum wage … and so if employers are saying, ‘Oh it’s OK because they have a disability,’ we’re saying, ‘No, it’s not OK.’

“They should be held to the exact same standard as everybody else because otherwise it’s discrimination in a different way.”

While social skills have been a critical focus of the initial class, so too will they be when the Seven Hills team mulls improvements and expansion of the Up and Out model.

Dould, who’s worked at Seven Hills for about a year and a half with a focus on integrating individuals into the community, said tweaks may be needed to the types of activities, such as role playing, that were used to promote soft skills, to make the lessons more tangible.

“[We] talked about separating out [the now-combined] clerical and customer service, more of a booming industry at this point, making phone calls and whatnot. A lot of the individuals, that’s kind of where they struggle.”

Though the size of the class seems right, the staff might also consider widening the scope to offer more curriculum or “career clusters,” including possibly landscaping, Acker said.

With minimum wage and employer costs rising, employers are looking for “individuals who are going to produce,” Acker said.

The first class of Seven Hills Up and Out program

Mark Henderson / Worcester Sun

The first class of Seven Hills Up and Out program, with administrators Trudy Dould, left, and James Acker, fifth from right.

For that, the hope is that Central Massachusetts employers will look more and more toward Seven Hills.

“When you look from week to week at just the progression, the cohesiveness of the different groups and then you see different milestones that they’ve made over the course of five weeks,” Dould said, “it’s really great.”

In more ways than one, this Seven Hills program is a reminder that there’s joy to be found in a day’s work.

This article was originally published in the Oct. 4, 2015 edition of the Sun.

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