Ability Works 2013

Ability Works Recognition Ceremony 2013Six hard-working West Virginians were honored Oct. 16 for exemplary vocational rehabilitation through the West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services. The annual Ability Works Awards honor one outstanding candidate from each of the agency’s six districts, coinciding with National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

Their stories below are linked to their names here:

Jean Shepard, Wheeling District
State Winner

Jean Shepard with Booth Goodwin

Jean Shepard receives her award from R. Booth Goodwin II, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, who delivered the keynote speech of the 2013 awards ceremony.

Dealing with life’s challenges earned Jean Shepard the nickname "Comeback Kid." But, through it all, this 57-year-old lady found out who she really is.

Jean is legally blind due to a condition called diabetic retinopathy. She also has diabetic neuropathy, which makes standing on her feet for long periods of time difficult.

Jean had previously been a client of the Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS), according to Asha Vedanandan, her rehabilitation counselor. She was successfully placed in a job at Walmart that didn’t require her to be on her feet. However, the scope of her job broadened, requiring her to stand for long periods of time, and she could no longer keep the job.

But, Jean wanted to do something with her life. So, she came back to DRS for assistance.

For Jean, the onset of her blindness was devastating. She had to give up her driver’s license; she was afraid of losing her mobility and independence.

To help her compensate for her vision loss, Jean received orientation and mobility services from DRS.

"I thought my life was over, and they let me know my life was not over," explained Jean. "It was only just beginning."

"I learned to be able to go downtown, to cross the streets safely, to board a bus, know when to get off the bus, know how to find my way back to the office when left a few blocks away," she said.

Working with her counselor, she decided to enroll in DRS’ Randolph-Sheppard Program, which provides training in food service management to eligible DRS clients who are legally blind. Successful participants become self-employed, ultimately operating and managing vending and/or snack bar locations in government buildings.

Jean had previous assistant manager experience at Wendy’s and Rax restaurants and she believes this laid the foundation for the training she received through the Randolph-Sheppard Program.

Jean worked one-on-one with Randolph-Sheppard Program business counselors and mentored with other licensed vendors at their business locations to learn the specific job requirements. She participated in financial training with a certified accountant/auditor for the program. Jean also had to complete and pass a food handling and safety course.

Jean is now the owner/operator of Lady Bug Café and Lady Bug Vending. Her café is in the Ohio County Courthouse in Wheeling and she provides vending services at several locations in Wheeling, including the Federal Building, the Police Department, the 911 Center and the Sheriff’s Department, as well as in the Weirton Municipal Building and the West Virginia Northern Regional Jail in Moundsville.

According to Vedanandan, DRS provided Jean with some adaptive equipment, including a talking cash register and a money identifier, so she could run her business successfully.

In addition to her disability-related issues, Jean is a domestic abuse survivor. Vedanandan credits Jean for being a fighter, who is motivated and persistent.

"She has a saying, P-squared – persistence times patience equals success," said Vedanandan. "She’s overcome a lot just by keeping going, and going forward, and never stopping and never letting her disabilities or any other life circumstances stop her."

Jean admits that she used to have self-esteem problems, but that’s no longer true. She is proud that she overcame being an abused woman, knowing who she is and leaving behind any bitterness.

Jean is an advocate against domestic violence. "My best advice for anyone that is in an abusive situation," advises Jean, "reach down inside and find yourself, because you matter and it’s important to know yourself, to move away from that and find out what a wonderful person you really are."

She now considers herself a people person. She loves interacting with her customers.

In her spare time, she spends as much time as she can with her three children and her six grandchildren. "I do everything from write on the sidewalk with chalk, to play with Barbies, to shoot squirt guns and draw," said Jean.

She’s extremely thankful for the wonderful support network she has had, including her family, her vocational rehabilitation counselors and the Randolph-Sheppard business counselors.

Jean is happy to be alive. She’s proud to be a contributing, productive member of society.

"I never dreamed that I would have a business, basically of my own creation," explained Jean. "I have chosen the name. My heart’s in it. I have found contentment I thought I would never have."

Kyle Gray, Charleston District

Kyle Gray with R. Booth Goodwin II

Kyle Gray receives his award from R. Booth Goodwin II, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, who delivered the keynote speech of the 2013 awards ceremony.

Just like many high school graduates, Kyle Gray needed to find a job so he could make money.

Kyle grew up in Ranson, where he attended Jefferson County High School. Like most students approaching graduation, Kyle was not sure what he wanted to do with his life.

In school, Kyle experienced difficulty in reading, spelling and math. His mother wanted to do everything she could to help her son prepare for the world after high school graduation, so she referred Kyle to the Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) for assistance.

During his high school career, Kyle explored vocational programs at James Rumsey Technical Institute, including masonry classes, but he wasn’t extremely interested in this profession.

Not long after graduation, Kyle relocated to Hurricane with his family. After the move, Kyle began working with Patty Babbitt, rehabilitation counselor in DRS’ Teays Valley Branch Office. By the time the two first met, Kyle had decided that he wanted to work at Walmart.

Kyle had no real work experience and found the job application process to be extremely difficult. Babbitt and Kyle decided that he could benefit from work adjustment and life skills training, as well as job placement and job coaching services.

At Kyle’s request, Babbitt arranged for him to work with the Human Resource Development Foundation (HRDF), a community rehabilitation program that DRS frequently uses to provide direct services to clients.

HRDF began trying to locate a business where Kyle could participate in work adjustment training, which provides clients with the opportunity to improve their work skills. Kyle did his work adjustment training at a local FoodFair grocery store, where he also learned specific job tasks including straightening merchandise on the shelves, returning items misplaced by customers, stocking new items, rotating items by date and cleaning shelves.

Kyle liked the work. His work skills and job performance improved as he learned to work more independently and increase his work speed.

HRDF also provided life skills training, which helped Kyle develop his social and communication skills and learn more about money.

After completing his work adjustment training at FoodFair, Kyle started looking for a job. According to Babbitt, Kyle’s primary obstacles to getting a job were things like completing résumés and interviews. Job placement assistance helped Kyle land his job at Walmart.

According to Jerry George, Walmart assistant manager, "Kyle takes care of our shopping carts for our customers. And anything that we need him to do, he jumps right on it."

"Kyle always shows up ready for work," explained George. "He’s very respectful to all the associates and customers and always has a great attitude."

Kyle, now 23 years old, has worked at Walmart for over a year. He likes his job and his managers.

Kyle’s parents were a source of encouragement and support to him during his training and job search. When he isn’t working, he likes to work on his mom’s car, play video games and spend time with his girlfriend.

Babbitt gives Kyle credit for being friendly, reliable and willing to complete whatever job is asked of him.

"Kyle is a good worker," said Babbitt. "He tries his best at everything he does. And I am proud of him."

Eliot Watson, Clarksburg District

Eliot Watson at work

Eliot Watson's mother received her son's award at the Oct. 16 ceremony in Charleston.

To Eliot Watson, 28, life should have purpose. Everyone should have something to look forward to and a reason to get up in the morning.

Eliot grew up in Terra Alta and graduated from Preston County High School. He went on to attend West Virginia University, graduating in 2010, with a degree in mechanical engineering.

That same year, Eliot sought out the Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS).

According to Debbie Riggie, a DRS senior rehabilitation counselor, "Eliot has disorganized type schizophrenia." The new diagnosis caused him to have difficulty with social interaction, getting along with peers and maintaining organizational and planning skills.

Eliot was looking for assistance that would help him get back on his feet so he could find his purpose in life.

Since Eliot’s degree is in engineering, that was his ultimate goal, explained Riggie. "When he became ill, he wasn’t able to do that… He just wanted to get back into the world of work."

Eliot participated in community based assessment and work adjustment training services through Horizon Goodwill Industries in Maryland. These services are designed to gauge vocational interests and abilities, as well as provide opportunities to improve work skills.

Working with Horizon Goodwill helped Eliot to develop and enhance his soft skills and become more prepared to enter employment.

Eliot was motivated and wanted to get a job. He recognized that getting his foot in the door somewhere and gaining additional work experience could only benefit him.

An application to Walgreens resulted in success for Eliot. In the fall of 2012, he began his job there as a photo specialist. He helped people develop pictures, worked the cash register and helped the manager close the store at night.

Riggie describes Eliot as being pleasant, cooperative and hard-working, but most of all he’s a go-getter.

"He picked his goal and wanted to go for it," said Riggie. "He has difficulty with social interaction at times, so it was hard for him at first, but he is determined and motivated. He’s got such a good personality. He’s a good asset for any company."

Eliot loved his job at Walgreens. He worked with great people and had a wonderful manager.

"Like with every new job, challenges come up, and you just strive to overcome your challenges," he explained. "I guess the biggest challenge for me was to really start becoming friends with people again, knowing who to trust, really communicating with people in a much different way from before my illness."

Since Eliot was successfully employed, DRS closed his case. Eliot had received the services he needed to overcome the barriers that were keeping him from getting a job.

But, he wasn’t done yet. From the beginning, Eliot wanted to work in the engineering field and he didn’t give up on that goal.

At a career fair hosted by West Virginia University, Eliot met the owner of Specialized Engineering. The contact paid off. He’s now employed by the company, working between 45 to 50 hours a week.

"I take nuclear density tests. I test the soil for compaction. That’s specialized engineering," Eliot explained. "I also make concrete samples and make sure the plasticity and the air entrainment and the temperature of the concrete is within spec before the contractor can place the concrete and footings or walls and slabs."

Eliot is proud of his accomplishments. He gives himself credit for being very self-motivated, staying positive and having a good outlook on life.

Eliot is also grateful for the support he’s received. His family has been there for him at every turn. He also appreciates the medical professionals at Fairmont General and Ruby Memorial Hospitals, as well as the Chestnut Ridge Center.

He’s happy that he’s working and he credits DRS with helping him stay motivated and learning that he can still be productive.

"It feels like when I’m working, I have a purpose, something that I can really show that I’m active and that I was put here to do something," said Eliot. "I don’t want to go to waste. It’s a terrible thing to waste your life. I want to make my time as worthwhile as I possibly can."

Fritz Zacher, Beckley District

Fritz Zacher with R. Booth Goodwin, II

Fritz Zacher receives his award from R. Booth Goodwin II, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, who delivered the keynote speech of the 2013 awards ceremony.

Fritz Zacher, 26, describes himself as the gatekeeper of his own destiny.

Medical professionals describe this extremely bright and artistically talented young man as having Asperger’s Syndrome.

According to Nancy Harris, rehabilitation counselor for the Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS), Fritz has a slightly different perspective than most people, which made things difficult for him socially and vocationally.

From the time he was very young, Fritz demonstrated strong artistic abilities. He created several comic book characters; he draws them and writes the script.

Fritz considers himself to be "a really great artist, not to toot my own horn, of course. But I’m good at singing, dancing, drawing and artworks."

His parents encouraged his artistic talents, but wanted Fritz to find a job that would support him.

Teachers at James Monroe High School referred Fritz to DRS for vocational assistance to help him prepare for his future.

"It was our goal to provide opportunities for Fritz to grow. So, we provided opportunities for him to develop his skills and abilities and build confidence and a sense of competence," said Harris. "While at the same time, providing experiences that would hone his social and vocational skills and help him become a little more perceptive about what’s expected in a work situation, without losing his uniqueness and the special things that he brings to the world."

After high school, Fritz took graphic arts classes at Mercer County Technical Education Center, where he became proficient in sophisticated graphic arts programs, including Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. His designs won him awards at both state and national competitions.

However, Fritz still needed to find a job. In addition to his lack of work experience, one of his biggest challenges was identifying opportunities and following through with the application process.

With assistance from DRS, Fritz started a subsidized, on-the-job training program with Monroe County Board of Education, where he learned the skills to be a substitute custodian. This training experience provided Fritz with extra job coaching to learn the necessary job tasks and reimbursed the employer’s wages paid during the training. Ultimately, the experience was a success and Monroe County Board of Education ended up with a well-trained employee.

While this training experience translated into a real job, it was only part-time and the work was sporadic. An intensive search began to help Fritz find a second job to complement his part-time employment or a full-time job that suited his abilities.

A contact at Mercer County Opportunity Industries (MCOI) in Princeton paid off. MCOI is a community rehabilitation program that DRS uses to provide job placement assistance, as well as various assessments and training services, to clients. They also have a fully functioning print shop where they make plaques, banners, signs and T-shirts.

MCOI was looking for someone to work as an assistant in its print shop. They needed a person with an artistic eye, who was detail oriented and was capable of doing exacting, tedious and repetitious work.

DRS and MCOI worked together to provide Fritz with an opportunity to see if he might be the right fit for this job opportunity.

Keith Frey, MCOI print and sign shop manager, describes Fritz as very coordinated and very task oriented. "If you show him something once, he’s good to go," said Frey. "Those skills really make him a great fit in the print shop."

Presently, Fritz is working two part-time jobs. Frey is flexible and works around Fritz’s part-time custodian job, where he can be called into work with very little notice.

"Fritz is really very amazing, being able to balance two jobs," said Harris. "And MCOI has been especially helpful because they’ve allowed him to, at any time, work his custodial job whenever he is called and make up his time at MCOI on other days."

Fritz believes one of the most important things in life is that you enjoy your work. And, that he does.

After starting work at MCOI, Fritz moved into his own apartment in Peterstown, which provides him easier access to both jobs. He loves living on his own.

Fritz is most proud of his participation in school and 4-H talent shows. He played the teen angel who sang Beauty School Dropout in a high school performance of the musical Grease.

In his spare time, Fritz plays video games, doodles, reads and continues to work on his comic book. The two leading characters are his favorite. The male character is named after himself and the female is named Emily, who represents his dream girl – someone who is kind, compassionate, happy and helps those in need.

According to Fritz, "I still have goals for my future that I want to set, ladders to climb, figuratively speaking."

Right now, Fritz is incredibly grateful for the support he’s received from his family and friends, past teachers, DRS and his employers.

"Like the old saying goes, you only live once," Fritz explains. "So, I simply do my best to live life to the fullest, independently, making as many friends as I can and having as much fun whenever possible."

Steven Blanton, Huntington District

Steven Blanton with R. Booth Goodwin II

Steven Blanton receives his award from R. Booth Goodwin II, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, who delivered the keynote speech of the 2013 awards ceremony.

A dramatic change in Steven Blanton’s life forced him to try and find a way to start all over again.

In 2001, Steven was living in Florida and working in the masonry field. A devastating assault after a day at work left Steven with a traumatic brain injury, which resulted in permanent loss of his ability to speak, as well as limited use of his right hand.

Due to the severity of his injuries, Steven spent time recuperating in a rehabilitation center in Florida. Steven’s family ultimately brought him home to Ceredo, West Virginia, where he currently resides.

Several months after his injury, he was referred to the Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) for vocational assistance. However, Steven needed more time to focus on his recuperation.

Steven came back to DRS in 2006. He was ready and wanted to go back to work.

According to Mary Klein, senior rehabilitation counselor, communication was Steven’s most significant barrier to becoming employed. As vocational goals and service needs were discussed, Steven’s mother assisted and spoke on her son’s behalf.

But, to get a job, a more permanent solution to Steven’s inability to verbally communicate would have to be found. "He had to be able to communicate with his supervisor, with his coworkers," Klein explained.

Steven started working with Marshall University’s Department of Communication Disorders, where he participated in speech therapy services as well as evaluation services to look at other ways for Steven to communicate.

Klein teamed up with the speech therapist from Marshall and DRS’ Assistive Technology Unit to look at augmentative communication devices that could help Steven.

Ultimately, a DynaVox communication device was recommended and purchased for him. The device is like a computer and can be programmed with different phrases to help Steven communicate his needs.

To enhance and develop his job skills, Steven participated in work adjustment training through Goodwill Industries in Huntington.

Woodworking had always been a favorite hobby of Steven’s and he continued this after his injury. According to Klein, this helped him compensate for the loss of dexterity and motor skills in his right hand.

Job placement assistance through Mountain State Center for Independent Living led to a job with Sodexo Food Service in Marshall University’s Harless Dining Hall.

One-on-one job coaching services helped Steven become familiar with his required job duties, supervisor and coworkers.

According to Louise Weaver, Steven’s supervisor, he does custodial work in the dining hall.

"Steven is a very punctual employee," said Weaver. "He comes in; he does his job very well."

Steven also gets along with his coworkers and others on the job. He can communicate his needs or work-related problems using his DynaVox device.

Steven, now 47 years old, is happy to be working and self-sufficient again.

Klein describes Steven’s best personal characteristics as "his determination and motivation to actually get back into society."

Steven is a very social person, but was isolated for a long time due to his inability to speak.

But, as Klein points out, "Once he began the speech therapy and started using the machine, he started going out more, be it around campus, be it to restaurants, be it driving himself to different places and also driving his mother."

Klein is proud of Steven’s accomplishments and believes he will continue succeeding as he tries new things.

Danielle Richardson, Martinsburg District

Danielle Richardson with R. Booth Goodwin II

Danielle Richardson receives her award from R. Booth Goodwin II, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, who delivered the keynote speech of the 2013 awards ceremony.

Being self-motivated and goal-oriented, Danielle Richardson, or Dani, set her sights on getting her education. Through hard work, she accomplished that and much more.

Dani is a person with profound bilateral hearing loss. She attended West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind. After graduating, she spent a semester at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C.

Dani decided to move back home, marry her high school sweetheart and begin a family. But, she still wanted to get her education.

She sought out the Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) for assistance. Barry Hill, rehabilitation counselor, explained that Dani had been accepted into Potomac State College and DRS provided financial assistance so she could pursue her college degree.

Dani graduated from Potomac State in December 2006, with an associate’s degree in early childhood education. After a lengthy and unsuccessful job search, Dani decided that furthering her education was her best option and she began taking online classes through American Public University. Again, DRS provided college financial assistance.

In May 2011, Dani achieved her bachelor’s degree in child development and once again, she began looking for a job.

She started her job as education specialist at West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind in January 2012.

According to Christine Frye, director of student living at West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind, "Dani’s job responsibilities are to facilitate and bring education into the dorm for the students. She works on critical skill development for those students who are struggling."

Some of Dani’s strongest qualifications, explained Frye, are her degree, training in American Sign Language and her own life experiences of having lived as a person who is deaf.

Dani loves working with kids and wants to make a difference in their lives.

She credits her family as being a source of motivation. "I grew up in a family of teachers; my mother is a physical education teacher here and my sister is an English teacher at the high school here, so I’ve always been in an educational environment," she said.

Dani admits that going to school and raising a family wasn’t always easy. In fact, it was overwhelming at times.

She also admits that trying to find a job was frustrating. "I applied for some positions where they would ask me, ‘How are you going to communicate with us?’" She believes increased awareness of the technology available to accommodate and compensate for communication barriers, as well as increased exposure to deafness, will help discourage these stereotypical attitudes.

Both Hill and Frye believe that Dani is a strong role model for the students. "She constantly is thinking about how the 21st century world is changing and how she can better help the students be prepared for that," explained Frye.

Dani is happy to have her job at the school. She is most proud of being able to accomplish her goals, being a mom and having a job to support her family.

With four growing boys, Dani spends most of her free time with them, being their number one fan at soccer games and other sporting events.

Dani appreciates the support her mom provided and her husband’s continual encouragement when she felt like giving up.

But, Dani didn’t quit. At the age of 29, she’s working on her next big goal, taking graduate classes and working toward her master’s degree.

Dani never dreamed she’d be working at the school she attended for so many years. But, she loves being there and being a role model for the students. She wants the kids to say, "Dani can do this, therefore, I can do that myself."