Ability Works 2019

Ability Works Recognition Ceremony 2018Six hard-working West Virginians were honored Oct. 23 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:

Lezlie Henderson

Huntington District, State Winner

Lezlie Henderson never thought she would see herself as compassionate and hard-working, let alone as a productive member of society.

Lezlie grew up in rural Wyoming County, where she spent a lot of time outside because her mother and father were both addicted to drugs and the environment inside the house wasn't good.

She went to Huntington High School for one year but dropped out of school in 2010. She later went on to complete her GED.

Lezlie has a substance use disorder and truly believes that Huntington's Drug Court saved her life.

“My drug addiction started young … It started out with just marijuana, Xanax's here and Xanax's there,” explained Lezlie. As a teenager, a doctor prescribed Lortabs and it progressed from there to heroin, cocaine and anything she could get her hands on, except for meth.

Lezlie admits that, early on, she struggled with Drug Court.

“In the beginning, I was stubborn,” Lezlie said. “I didn't want anybody to have authority over me, but once I buckled down, my probation officer was like, 'either it's this or prison.' … I started paying attention to the classes, I started listening to what she was telling me – it made me who I am today – I can be a mother, a coworker or a friend, a daughter that I was never able to be before.”

Lezlie learned about the Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) through a caseworker at Harmony House, which was part of the tracking system when she was on home confinement at the Huntington City Mission.

Dustin Mills, Lezlie's Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, explained that DRS provided a lot of vocational counseling and guidance, as well as encouragement and connections to other resources in the community, to support Lezlie on her path to employment. Because she had no real work experience, DRS also provided work adjustment training through Harmony House, which was an opportunity for Lezlie to gain hands-on job skills needed for employment.

According to Lezlie, her biggest challenge to her own employment was accepting others' authority. She admits that, in the beginning, she made excuses to try to get out of going to work, but her supervisor held her accountable and she learned to grow during the experience.

Lezlie started working at Harmony House as a shelter assistant but has been promoted to peer support specialist, where she works as a caseworker to help people who are in circumstances like what she's been through during her lifetime.

“I do anything from helping people get birth certificates and socials, helping them find apartments, taking them to doctors' appointments – anything that would hinder them from being back on the streets or helping them to get off of the streets,” said Lezlie.

Stephanie Swartek, Cooperative Agreements to Benefit Homeless Individuals (CABHI) Program Coordinator at Harmony House, which is a resource for people who are experiencing chronic homelessness, many of which have mental health conditions and/or substance use disorders, believes Lezlie's best qualification for her job is her own life experiences.

“She understands what our clients are going through because she has been through a lot of it, so they feel comfortable working with her and building that relationship with her – they trust her,” Swartek explained. “Also, she has a natural ability to make people feel understood and accepted regardless of their barriers or what they might be struggling with, they feel comfortable communicating with her.”

Mills also believes Lezlie's personal experience allows her to be a role model for the people she's helping. “She is not judgmental, so she accepts people for who they are, where they are, and has the experience of a person who was homeless, who was in active addiction, and is now in permanent housing and is working,” said Mills.

For Lezlie, she enjoys being able to help people, motivating them and sharing in their joy when they get into a home.

She uses them to help her remember where she came from and recognize the gratitude she has for where she is today. And, she calls on her support team when life gets hard to handle.

Lezlie has a daughter and she's extremely proud to just be a mom.

Her long-term goal is to go back to school to be a substance abuse counselor, so she can work with kids who come from backgrounds similar to her own.

Lezlie is also proud that she was able to complete drug court. “I have my plaque sitting beside my bed everyday so I can wake up and remember that; and then actually being able to say that I am a mother and I have a legal job that I know how to hold down now,” said Lezlie.

Lezlie credits DRS, Harmony House and Drug Court as the three biggest things that helped her get where she is today. “If I wouldn't have had [their support], honestly, I would probably be in the federal penitentiary or dead,” said Lezlie.

Cheryl Holstein

Charleston District

Cheryl Holstein used to believe that “jobs are jobs,” but she now has a career that she wouldn't give up for the world.

Cheryl grew up in Cabin Creek in Kanawha County. She was in her sophomore year at East Bank High School when a car accident in 1990 left her with a broken back. She was completely paralyzed from her waist down. Over the years, some of the nerve damage has healed and she can walk some with crutches but uses a wheelchair as her primary source of mobility.

After her accident, Cheryl was homeschooled for the remainder of her sophomore year. She ultimately went back to school, attending and graduating from DuPont High School.

After high school, Cheryl spent some time at the West Virginia Rehabilitation Center, formerly operated by the Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS), where she obtained accounting training and driver's education services.

Cheryl went to work for Ticketmaster for several years and started a family. She has two daughters that are her life's biggest accomplishments thus far.

As her daughters got older, Cheryl decided she needed a change. A friend's daughter was attending Ross Medical Education Center and she decided to check it out, ultimately enrolling in the pharmacy technician program.

According to Meredith Perry, Cheryl's Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, Cheryl came back to DRS to see if the agency could help her with her new career goal. DRS did provide her with job training assistance, and she completed her pharmacy technician certification in 2018.

During her training at Ross, Cheryl gained internship experience at Omnicare, a pharmacy in Cross Lanes, and at the Cancer Center in Charleston.

According to Cheryl, her job search didn't take that long but her first interview was unpleasant. Unfortunately, that pharmacy was not very open to her disability. However, things turned around when she interviewed with the Rite Aid in Kanawha City. She began working there as a Certified Pharmacy Technician in April 2018.

“They've never, not once treated me like I was disabled,” explained Cheryl. “They offered me anything that I needed, all I have to do is ask.”

Brad Hatcher, Pharmacy Manager where Cheryl works, explained that they are in the process of transitioning to Walgreens and Cheryl's top responsibility is to take care of their customers. She also assists the pharmacists in everything they do – from counting pills, running prescriptions and taking care of customers at the register, as well as taking care of outdated or overstocked materials and hazardous waste.

According to Hatcher, not only did Cheryl have to have her license, but Walgreens has a pharmacy technician university and she had to complete that training and pass an exam to work there. Their pharmacy technicians also must take monthly computer-based training to keep up on the various aspects of pharmacy.

Since Cheryl was injured when she was so young, she's adopted the attitude that you must make the best of every situation.

“Because being in a chair just more or less changes your outlook on life,” she explained. “It just gives you a different perspective and there is not really anything anybody can't do. It's just a matter of sometimes you have to go around it to do it.”

Hatcher believes Cheryl's best attributes are her positive attitude and people skills. “She deals with the customers and nobody gets mad at her,” Hatcher said. “Somebody might be stressed, and you figure out solutions to things, and she is really good at working with people.”

Cheryl is grateful to DRS for helping her obtain her pharmacy technician training. She also appreciates and respects the pharmacists that she works with regularly. They gave her a chance and taught her a lot.

She believes everything, good or bad, happens for a reason and she wishes she had made this career change years ago.

For Cheryl, the best part of her job is helping her patients. “I love this job,” Cheryl said. “When you have a job that you like to come to, that when you wake up and you know you have to go to work, it's not disappointing.”

Her goal is to stay where she is, learn as much as she can and be the best pharmacy technician that she can be.

Rueben Kerns

Clarksburg District

Rueben Kerns is a stalwart example of his belief that “tough times don't last; tough people do.”

Rueben works for the Post Audit Division of the West Virginia Legislative Auditor's Office in Charleston. He grew up in Barbour County, where he attended Philip Barbour High School, graduating in 2012. He enjoyed playing sports and video games and spending time with friends.

In school, Rueben excelled academically. However, a speech impediment caused Rueben to have a stuttering problem, which made communicating difficult. A high school teacher referred Rueben to the Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) for assistance with transitioning from school to postsecondary education.

According to Donna Cain, Rueben's Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, DRS provided career exploration services, vocational counseling and guidance and vocational assessment, as well as assistance through his college career and employment search.

Rueben attended Davis and Elkins College, graduating in 2015 with a Bachelor of Arts in criminology. After that, he earned a Master of Forensic Accounting from the University of Charleston in 2018.

One of his biggest challenges while pursuing his education was communicating.

“In college, there are countless times where civil discourse between students and professors is the primary way of communicating, whether that be answering questions, presentations, or generally discussing topics,” Rueben explained. “It's difficult to effectively state your position and knowledge on a subject area when the flow of your speech is hindered.”

Despite the challenge, Cain stated that Rueben did excellent in school through his own hard work and personal integrity.

Rueben believes the advent of technology has helped him adapt to and overcome the adversities related to his speech impediment. A cell phone allows him to communicate by text message, which is the primary way he talked with Cain during meetings to plan what he needed to meet his career goals. During his graduate work, he used text-to-speech technology for presentations. And now, in his job, he frequently uses his cell phone to text with his supervisor and coworkers.

For Rueben, the hardest part of his job search was the interviewing process. “Getting interviews is relatively straightforward if you have relevant experience and/or education,” said Rueben. “However, when you have a disability, interviews become the toughest part of procuring gainful employment.”

But Rueben believes that you must be resilient, and things will ultimately work out in the end.

Rueben secured his job as Auditor with the Post Audit Division in September 2018.

According to Adam Fridley, Audit Manager, Rueben is a member of his audit team. The role of the Post Audit Division is to execute performance audits on state agencies. Once they get an audit assignment, they must do a lot of research to identify an agency's specific programs to determine critical functions and core missions. The audit is used to determine whether the agency's operations are being achieved effectively, efficiently and economically.

Rueben's specific job functions are to work with an agency to execute the audit plan, which includes collecting and analyzing information, as well as compiling reports and presenting them to members of the West Virginia Legislature.

Fridley believes Rueben's strongest assets are his objective mind and critical thinking skills. “In my experience with Rueben, I found him to be very good at the written aspects of taking those complex audit issues and really writing them up in a way that is understandable for a very broad audience.”

When it comes to workplace accommodations, Fridley leaves it up to Rueben to tell them what he needs in order to make communication easier and more comfortable for him. In team meetings, Rueben may express his input verbally or type his thoughts into his phone to share with the group.

Fridley feels that Rueben is a terrific addition to their office and after two years of professional experience he will have earned his certified fraud examiner certification.

Rueben enjoys the research aspect of his job – gaining knowledge and understanding how different government programs work to assist West Virginia citizens.

He believes everybody in his life has played a critical role in helping him to develop into the person that he is today, and he still has a lot of goals to accomplish.

Right now, his goal is to be the best version of himself in whatever avenue he's pursuing.

Josh Kittle

Wheeling District

Josh Kittle knew he needed to apply himself and get his life on track, but he knew he couldn't do it without some guidance to help him along the way.

Josh grew up in Belpre, Ohio, but moved to Parkersburg in 2012. He graduated from Parkersburg South High School in 2014.

At an early age, Josh had developed a strong interest in computers. After high school, he tried college at West Virginia University at Parkersburg, but it didn't work out for him.

Josh has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder, which made it difficult for him to pursue an education or employment.

In 2017, Josh realized that he really needed to do something to help himself become more independent, so he approached the Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) for assistance. He had worked with DRS once before but at that time he really wasn't ready to pursue employment.

According to Linda Lucas, Josh's Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, Josh had never felt like he fit in anywhere. He was interested in computers and electronics, but he didn't feel like he could work in the field since he didn't have a college degree.

Lucas set Josh up for services through SW Resources, a community rehabilitation program in Parkersburg, where his work skills were assessed. Lucas and SW Resources worked together to secure an opportunity for Josh to do a community-based assessment at Really Cheap Geeks, a locally owned business in Parkersburg that does computer and technology repairs.

The community-based assessment gave Josh the opportunity to test his abilities but also a chance to build confidence and self-esteem when it comes to working with and around other people.

According to Lucas, DRS also helped Josh get treatment to help with his depression and anxiety so that he could learn better coping skills to deal with his disabilities.

Josh explained that he gets overwhelmed at times. “With ADHD and depression, it's always made it hard for me to focus and buckle down and my anxiety would be bad,” he said. “There are days when I have a lot of energy and days when I'm just tired, I just don't want to do a lot, but I still kind of focus on it.”

Josh referred to an effective, but simple, coping strategy that he used – chewing on mints to help him deal with his anxiety and stay focused.

Josh's success and growth during his community-based assessment at Really Cheap Geeks ultimately led to employment as a Computer Technician with the business. “He did really well, and he was eventually hired at Cheap Geeks, and that's where he works doing electronics and computer repair,” Lucas explained.

Edward Escandon, Owner of Really Cheap Geeks, believes one of the biggest things Josh needed was self-confidence. Building more self-assurance has enabled him to relax around people so that he can help them with their computer or phone repairs.

Escandon refers to Josh as his “go-to guy for Androids,” calling that Josh's specialty area.

“It seems like he's self-taught,” explained Escandon. “Most techs – I think they get into it because of their own interest and that's what helps them dig in and really get good at it and Josh has clearly done that on his own and since he's been with us. You get to fill in a lot of the gaps because of the problems that come your way and he's continued to grow and learn and that's exactly what we need from him.”

Lucas believes Josh's biggest obstacle to overcome was his anxiety.

Josh describes himself as adaptive. “I'm always willing to learn” Josh said. “I've learned a lot of things over time that just a matter of two or three years ago I would never have thought of being able to do. I would do minor projects on my own, but with help from others, I've actually learned how to do things either better, more efficiently, or even new things I wouldn't have even thought of.”

Just recently, Josh expanded his skills to be able to work on iPhone screens, something his anxiety would not have previously allowed him to do.

Josh likes working and believes that he would not be where he is today without the help he's received along the way from DRS, SW Resources, his family, Really Cheap Geeks and many others.

Lee Pittsenbarger

Beckley District

By the time Lee Pittsenbarger was 50, he was living a very ideal life. He was married with two sons, living in Ronceverte, and he had worked for the same company, Mullican Flooring, for 28 years. In his spare time, he liked to hunt, go boating on the lake and he was involved in the community as a West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission (WVSSAC) referee, where he officiated local sporting events, including softball, baseball and volleyball.

In September 2017, Lee had a stroke and his life unexpectedly changed in an instant.

The stroke left him with significant weakness on his left side, in both his arm and his leg. Doctors didn't initially know what caused it but a hematologist/oncologist in Princeton eventually diagnosed him with a blood clotting disorder called Factor VIII, which caused the stroke. The stroke may have been preventable if Lee had been aware of having the condition.

Lee spent several weeks in a physical rehabilitation program at The Brian Center in Low Moor, Virginia, where his wife stayed by his side every night, encouraging him in his recovery. Upon release from that facility, Lee needed months of intensive physical therapy to rebuild his strength and relearn to use his left arm, hand and leg.

While Lee was not aware of the Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS), a friend referred him, and he ultimately sought assistance to help him get back to work.

His initial vocational goal was to go back to work in the same job that he had before his stroke. DRS provided Lee with vocational counseling and guidance and rehabilitation technology services, in addition to providing physical therapy assistance and some computer training in case he was not able to go back to the type of work he had done most of his life.

Before Lee could fully recover from his stroke, he lost the job he'd had at Mullican Flooring.

Lee wanted to go back to work and this setback did not stop him from achieving his goal.

Jamie Lafferty, Lee's Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, believes that Lee is very driven. “He wanted to go back to work,” said Lafferty. “He knew he wanted to go back to work, and he had a lot of support from his family and the community, as well as DRS, and we helped get him through to where he is now … he progressed very well, and he worked very, very hard through the process.”

Working with DRS, Lee was able to secure an interview with another woodworking company called Mountain Lumber in Maxwelton, and according to Lee, the gentleman he interviewed with offered him a job right there on the spot.

Lee was very happy to get back to work, but the physical aspect of the job was very demanding for him after his stroke. Lee worked at Mountain Lumber for nearly a year.

During his recovery, a gentleman named Curtis Persinger kept in touch with Lee. Persinger and Lee had known each other for many years and had previously worked together at Mullican Flooring. Persinger works as the Logistics Manager for The Greenbrier Resort. That connection ultimately led Lee to his present job in the Purchasing Warehouse Department at The Greenbrier.

“Here at the warehouse, we basically cater to all the Greenbrier's needs” explained Persinger. “We receive all the dry goods, beverages, pretty much everything that the hotel uses comes here and then we check it in, receive it, and ship it over to the hotel.”

Persinger further explained, “Lee will receive a lot of products and put the orders together and get them prepared to go over to the different facilities there at the hotel.”

Lee's strongest qualities, Persinger believes, are that he's a fast learner and very good with the computer.

The stroke has been Lee's biggest life challenge so far. The support he's received from his family and his community has been his primary source of motivation through the difficult times. His stroke happened during his son's high school senior year, where he was playing soccer. The support from the team was also a source of encouragement for him.

He's extremely proud of both of his sons. “One is graduating with his master's degree from Georgia Tech,” said Lee, “and the other one is an electrician.”

Lee is happy to be working again. He likes the variety of the job he has and believes it to be more laid-back than his previous jobs doing production work. And he really enjoys working with people.

His goal is to work until he can retire and then just relax on the lake.

Cynthia Jamison

Martinsburg District

Cynthia Jamison made the choice to have a better life, and in doing so, she's helping others to try and improve their own circumstances.

Cynthia grew up in the Eastern Panhandle, graduating from Paw Paw High School in 2007.

When referring to her upbringing, Cynthia defines it as very dark because she grew up in a family struggling with addiction.

“I was able to complete my high school education,” Cynthia explained. “However, my college endeavors were put on hold due to a physically abusive relationship that I was in at the time.”

Eventually, Cynthia did pursue postsecondary education. She wanted to get her social work degree, but she was raising her son on her own and she was struggling financially to pay for the education. So, in 2015, Cynthia sought out the Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) for assistance.

Cynthia has a spinal condition called spondylolisthesis, where the vertebra slips onto the bone below it. She also has bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Cynthia's disability causes her daily pain. She uses herbal treatments; she refuses to take narcotic painkillers because of her family's history with addiction. She also doesn't sleep much because of night terrors associated with her PTSD.

According to Ann Ramos, Cynthia's Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, DRS provided vocational counseling and guidance, as well as evaluations to determine that social work was a good employment goal for Cynthia, and college financial assistance.

Cynthia earned a liberal arts associate degree from Blue Ridge Community and Technical College and a bachelor's degree in social work from Shepherd University.

While going to school, Cynthia did an internship with Telamon Corporation in Martinsburg and then continued working as a volunteer. A position came open at Telamon for which Cynthia had the training and she met the job requirements, so she applied and was ultimately hired as a Housing Family Mentor.

At her job, Cynthia works with a caseload, providing a wide variety of case management services, explained Marian House, Housing Program Coordinator for Telamon Corporation. Her responsibilities change daily and include working with both the homeless and at-risk populations.

“I can be dealing with bedbugs and cockroaches one day and the next day I'm taking someone to the doctor,” Cynthia said.

During her internship, Cynthia helped to do a real count of the homeless population in Morgan County, which was believed to be nonexistent or extremely low. She was also essential in establishing the first cold shelter there by bringing about awareness and attention to the issue.

Cynthia serves as the board chair of the Faith Community Coalition for Homelessness, which is an all-volunteer-based organization that provides emergency services to people at risk of being evicted and helps people who have lost their homes to relocate.

Ramos believes Cynthia to be strong, dedicated, persistent and goal oriented. “She goes above and beyond for her clients,” explained Ramos. “She really brings all of her own experiences with being homeless herself – so, she has been able to connect her past experience to her work and that has really helped her.”

According to House, “Cynthia is very motivated; she is quite unstoppable sometimes – she goes the extra mile for her consumer.”

“This is a good fit for me, as a job, because I have 'lived experience' – not just in being homeless” said Cynthia. “I have 'lived experience' of being around people that are addicted. I grew up in an addictive household. I have dealt with physical disabilities. A lot of my clients have addictions, they have physical disabilities, or they have mental disabilities. … Some of these disabilities, I have encountered myself, in my past as a person, whether it be me directly or someone that was very close to me such as my biological mother or my biological brother. I've had a lot of adversities; I was a victim until I was 25.”

Cynthia's biggest challenge in life, thus far, has been to completely sever ties with her family. “It is very hurtful at times when I want to celebrate events with my family and stuff and I just don't have a family,” Cynthia stated. “I have an adopted family that took me in when I got older, but my biological family is very toxic to me and my son.”

Her son is her proudest accomplishment. “I love him with all my heart, and I want him to see that no matter what he does, he can do whatever he puts his mind to, and no one is going to be able to stop him,” Cynthia said.

On a personal and professional level, Cynthia wants to earn a master's degree in social work before her physical condition worsens.

Cynthia is grateful to DRS for enabling her to get the training she needed for her job and empowering her so that she can help others.