Ability Works 2022

Six hard-working West Virginians were honored Oct. 20 for exemplary vocational rehabilitation through the West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services.

The 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:

James Sparks

Huntington District, State Winner

James Sparks teaches social studies at River View High School in McDowell County, which is also the school he attended and graduated from in 2016.

While playing football in high school, James dislocated his knee a couple of times, causing permanent damage. Those injuries pushed him to reach out to the West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) to help him plan and prepare for his future.

James knew he wanted to be a teacher, but growing up in Squire, his life had not been easy. His grandparents raised him because his parents had substance use issues. He was a junior in high school when his grandmother passed away.

Despite those difficulties, James went on to pursue his bachelor's degree in secondary education from Concord University. He faced another setback when his grandfather passed away as he was starting his student teaching requirement.

However, the additional emotional stress did not stop James from succeeding. He earned his degree in 2021.

According to James, DRS Rehabilitation Counselor Holly Estep was very good at providing him with information and assistance beginning when he was in high school.

James received financial support from DRS to attend college, as well as a laptop and other supplies to help him with school. DRS also helped James with the financial costs of taking the required examinations to become certified as a teacher.

River View High School Principal Frazier McGuire explained that James teaches social studies to students in grades nine through 12. McGuire believes James holds a special place in his heart for the school because he grew up there.

In addition to being a teacher, James assists with coaching the high school and middle school football teams, and he keeps stats for the girls' basketball and softball teams.

In his role as teacher, James admits that he is trying to do his best and he is learning every day, especially about how kids behave and react in different situations.

For James, his favorite part of working is interacting with his students and the athletes.

According to McGuire, James has a lot of compassion for his students and is a good fit for the school.

While he does not envision himself ever leaving McDowell County, James is currently pursuing a master's degree in athletic coaching and leadership from West Virginia University. He believes furthering his education will help him be a better coach and educator.

Estep feels James' perseverance enabled him to succeed.

"He's had so many obstacles in his life with his family, in school with people telling him he's not going to be able to reach his goals," said Estep. "He could have stopped, but every single time, he kept going."

James admits there were times when he didn't think he would make it through school, but he is proud of the accomplishment.

Estep believes James is kindhearted and caring, and those characteristics lead him to give back to his community.

James believes that a lot of people look down on McDowell County because of the poverty and drugs, but he feels the county has a lot of positive things to offer and those attributes begin with the elementary, middle and high school students. It makes him proud to try to be a positive role model for his students and the athletes with whom he works.

Ashley Higginbotham

Charleston District

Ashley Higginbotham works as a care teacher at Sacred Heart Early Learning Center in Charleston. At her job, she gets to take care of kids, and that has been her goal since she was in middle school.

Ashley grew up in Hurricane and attended St. Albans High School, graduating in 2017. Through her school, she connected with the West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) for assistance to help her prepare for employment after graduating. Ashley has a learning disability and a speech impediment, and according to DRS Senior Rehabilitation Counselor Veronica Bunch, work-based training helped Ashley to learn more about jobs in her chosen field and life skills training helped her to grow in her self-confidence.

Ashley participated in the early childhood development training program at Ben Franklin Career Center and went on to attend BridgeValley Community and Technical College, where she majored in early childhood education.

While Ashley is independent and hard-working, when it came time to look for a job, she was intimidated by the interview process because of her speech impediment. Ashley was afraid that employers would not be able to understand what she was saying. Assistance provided through DRS helped Ashley to improve her interviewing skills.

After applying at Sacred Heart, Ashley's hard work paid off, and she was so excited when she learned that she had gotten the job because it was what she had always wanted to do.

According to Assistant Director Andrea Bias, care teachers at the Sacred Heart Early Learning Center are responsible for providing a safe, clean and predictable learning environment for children from six weeks old to 2.5 years old.

Bias explained that Ashley is a care teacher in an infant room where two teachers are assigned eight children, and Ashley is the primary caretaker of four of those children that range in age from six weeks to 14 months.

Her responsibilities include all aspects of taking care of those four children, including feeding them and changing diapers, throughout the workday, which can run from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Ashley describes herself as a caring person, a characteristic that is essential for her job because of the amount of patience it can take to manage the day-to-day needs of four infant children.

For Ashley, her job is extremely rewarding. She thoroughly enjoys watching the children grow and develop, and she celebrates their milestones, like sitting up and crawling, with them.

Bias feels that Sacred Heart is lucky to have Ashley as an employee. She's a hard worker who is very responsible. She is also a team player and does not complain.

Bias also gives Ashley credit for being able to set and reach her goals.

So far, Ashley is most proud of completing her degree at BridgeValley, and she would like to eventually further her education so she can advance in her field.

Bunch is proud of how much Ashley has grown since she began working with her as a high school student. She believes her positive attitude and passion for working with children will continue to help her move forward in the profession.

For Ashley, her road was not always easy. She is grateful to her family for supporting her through her challenges, and she is happy that she's been able to accomplish such a big goal.

"I did face a lot of challenges, but now I have a career that I love and enjoy," said Ashley.

Jayla Williams

Clarksburg District

Jayla Williams works at Old Navy as a brand associate, a job that is perfectly suited for someone with the character traits of being nice, funny, creative and fashionable.

Jayla grew up in West Milford, where she attended and graduated from South Harrison High School in 2018.

While in high school, Jayla was referred to the West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) for assistance with her transition from school to work. Jayla has Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes developmental delays. She was extremely shy and insecure, and she needed help with acquiring independent living and life skills and with learning more about work and job options.

According to DRS Branch Office Manager Lori Cumberledge, who was also Jayla's vocational rehabilitation counselor, DRS contracted with the ARC of Harrison County, a community rehabilitation provider, so Jayla could participate in life skills training and a community-based assessment, where she got to visit work sites to learn more about herself and the types of jobs she might like or dislike.

One of the job sites Jayla got to try was Old Navy, which she liked best, and the store's management was interested in hiring Jayla. So, DRS contracted with the ARC to provide a work skills assessment and job coaching services to help Jayla learn the type of job tasks she would be required to perform at the store. Unfortunately, the pandemic put things on hold for Jayla for a little while, but ultimately her training got back on track, and she began working at Old Navy.

Cumberledge explained how well Jayla progressed with the help of her first job coach. She learned how to clean the fitting rooms and to sort and place stock appropriately. This assistance has also helped her to overcome some of her shyness and insecurity.

Senior Lead Maddie Lipscomb, store manager, describes Old Navy as a company of style, where the goal is to find a fit and style for everyone. Lipscomb explained that Jayla's responsibilities include maintaining and cleaning the fitting rooms, and she helps with whatever they need her to do. She credits her with being kind and friendly to everyone, and she believes Jayla has grown and become more outgoing since she first started working there.

For Jayla, one of her favorite tasks so far has been preparing and displaying the flip flops when they came into the store for the summer season. She loved the vibrant colors of this variety of shoe.

For Jayla, getting a job was important so she could make some money, make some friends and be around people. She's very proud of becoming more independent and accomplishing her goals. But the best part of her job is her coworkers. She enjoys working with them. Jayla continues to have a job coach to help her as needed on her job to maintain skills or learn new tasks. Her current job coach is through Job Squad, Inc., and the service cost is covered by the Intellectual/Developmental Disability (I/DD) waiver. With this service, Jayla continues to move forward with her skills in the workplace, including greeting customers, something she was not comfortable with in the beginning due to her shyness and insecurities.

According to Kristi Belt, a career counselor with Job Squad, Jayla continuously brings a positive presence into the store. She wants to do a good job and enjoys learning new things. And she really likes putting outfits together and playing the role of fashionista.

Cumberledge believes Jayla makes a positive impression on everyone who comes into the store and empowers others who may be doubtful of their capabilities to work. Holding a job is important to Jayla. It makes her feel valued. She is contributing to the community, and it gives her a sense of independence and fulfillment.

Ismael Calzada

Wheeling District

Ismael Calzada works as a dishwasher at Perkins Restaurant in Moundsville. This is his first real job, and he is happy to have the opportunity and loves working there.

Originally from Pennsylvania, Ismael and his family relocated, and he has spent most of his life growing up in Moundsville. He graduated from John Marshall High School in 2020.

While in school, Ismael was referred to the West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) for transition services to help him prepare for life after graduating.

Ismael has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). DRS Certified Rehabilitation Counselor Debbie Moore explained that Ismael had trouble concentrating and was easily distracted from staying on task, which could hinder his ability to succeed in the workplace.

While still in high school, Moore got Ismael involved in life skills training through the local Goodwill Industries, a community rehabilitation provider DRS frequently utilizes to provide one-on-one services.

Through community-based assessment services, Ismael was able to participate in some hands-on work experience at four different job sites. One of those was Perkins Restaurant, which he liked the best.

DRS continued to contract with Goodwill to provide Ismael with services to help him learn specific responsibilities for this work site. A job coach from Goodwill worked with him, teaching required tasks and appropriate workplace behavior.

Ismael admits that before he started working with his job coach, he was "like an uncaged tornado running rampant." However, with the help he received from DRS and Goodwill and with the support from his mother and family, he is in a much better place, and he found a job that suits him.

Perkins Restaurant General Manager Tom Smith ultimately hired Ismael, and he feels the partnership to bring him on board with the restaurant was a win-win for everyone.

Smith explained that Ismael's responsibilities include doing dishes, taking out trash, sweeping and mopping floors, but he is willing to do anything asked of him.

Moore describes Ismael as outgoing, flexible, likable and determined, and he puts those traits forward at his job. According to Smith, Ismael is a go-getter, and he wants to please everyone, and he does that, which makes him an asset to the restaurant.

Ismael was voted homecoming king during his senior year of high school, something for which he is very proud. He is also proud of getting the job at Perkins. Meeting that goal was important to him so he could help other people, get out of his house and earn some money.

Ismael is grateful for the opportunity to work at Perkins, and he appreciates the help he received along the way.

In the future, he may go back to school. His interests are vast and range from teaching special education to practicing cosmetology.

Right now, Ismael chooses to not let his disability get to him and to focus on his abilities, and he encourages others to do the same.

"This is to anybody else who has ADD, OCD, ADHD, any learning or physical disability. Don't let your critics, don't let your haters get to you," said Ismael. "Your biggest source of motivation is yourself because you can be your own hero, but sometimes you can be your own villain … be the hero you need to be."

Joseph Chericozzi

Beckley District

Joseph Chericozzi is employed as a janitor by Mercer County Opportunity Industries (MCOI).

Joseph grew up in Princeton. While attending Princeton Senior High School, he became a client of the West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) for assistance with transitioning from school to employment.

Joseph has Asperger's syndrome, which caused him to have difficulty with focus, as well as with communication, organizational, socialization and interpersonal skills.

According to DRS Rehabilitation Counselor Margie Cordle, after graduating in 2020, Joseph wanted to pursue a degree in business administration from Concord University. But that was during the height of the pandemic when most classes were online, and Joseph didn't do so well in that environment.

However, DRS helped Joseph look at other vocational options.

MCOI is a community rehabilitation provider that DRS frequently utilizes to provide one-on-one training services to consumers. Through job coaching and work adjustment training provided by MCOI, Joseph learned specific job requirements to do janitorial work, as well as skills to help him stay focused and organized on the job.

Joseph was hired by MCOI, but he does janitorial work at the West Virginia Tourist Information Center in Princeton.

MCOI Executive Director Jamie Hall clarified that Joseph helps to keep the Tourist Information Center clean, including the restrooms, the gift shop and the grounds.

According to Joseph, his training taught him to be more open-minded and helped him to become more comfortable with things like interacting with people. He explained that working at the Tourist Information Center puts him in a position to meet a lot of people, and whether he likes it or not, that involves social interaction.

His favorite thing about his job is his boss, Jamie Hall, or Miss Jamie as he calls her. He likes her because she makes the job seem so easy, and she doesn't get upset when he messes up. She helps him to learn from his mistakes.

Hall believes Joseph's best personal attribute is his positive attitude. He is very genuine towards people, greeting them with a smile and by name, if he knows it.

She considers him a team player because he helps his coworkers and will cover shifts whenever it's possible for him to do so.

While Cordle credits Joseph with being optimistic and humble, she sees personal determination as his strongest characteristic. That determination is pushing Joseph to continue with his dream of pursuing postsecondary education. He is currently enrolled at New River Community and Technical College.

MCOI has been able to accommodate Joseph's work schedule so he can attend classes.

Once he has completed his program at New River, Joseph hopes to work towards his bachelor's degree in business administration.

Joseph is most proud of going back to school and for holding onto his job for so long. Working at MCOI is his first real employment experience, and he is really enjoying the environment.

Joseph is very grateful to his family for inspiring and supporting him and to DRS and MCOI for the guidance and training that led him to accomplish one of his life goals.

Michael Moore

Huntington District

Michael Moore works as an Information Technology Client Analyst 1 for the West Virginia Office of Technology, a state agency responsible for maintenance, software and hardware installations and upgrades to computers and other technology for executive branch agencies of state government.

At age 55, Michael has worked for the Office of Technology for nearly 10 years. At his job, Michael troubleshoots problems to fix computers. He also installs and replaces computer software and hardware and works on cell phones and tablets.

Michael approached the West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) several years ago because he was having trouble at his job, and he hoped DRS could help.

Michael has been deaf since birth, a condition that resulted after his mother was infected with German measles during her pregnancy.

As a child, Michael learned to communicate using American Sign Language. He began his education at a school for the deaf but later transitioned to the "hearing world," where sign language interpreters assisted in his classrooms. He considers himself lucky that his parents also learned this distinctive language, and they were able to help him with homework and his classes at school.

Michael could easily have learned to pity himself, but he chose to face the problems associated with being deaf and to deal with them directly.

After high school, Michael earned an associate degree in computer technology from Prince George's Community College.

One of the biggest challenges Michael faced was when he was applying for jobs. Unfortunately, many employers did not consider him a viable candidate because of concerns relating to communication barriers.

However, at his current job, communication barriers do not prevent Michael from performing his work tasks.

DRS Rehabilitation Counselor Monty Hogbin explained that Michael was having difficulty hearing and identifying specific sounds that were necessary for him to troubleshoot problems in his work. Therefore, DRS purchased hearing aids for Michael so he could hear certain sounds, including specific noises a computer makes when it is malfunctioning and a cell phone ringtone, so he knows it is working.

According to Office of Technology Field Tech Manager Deidre Rainwater, a big part of Michael's job is customer service, and he handles it very well.

Michael's responsibilities require him to cover seven counties in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle. Many of Michael's job duties are performed remotely, which allows this in-demand agency to save on travel costs and provide more efficient services to its customers.

When it comes to communicating with customers and coworkers, Michael uses a variety of methods, including text messages, email, virtual media platforms, chat programs and video relay services.

Rainwater credits Michael with being dependable and eager to work, with having a fantastic attitude and with being a team player.

Hogbin believes Michael's tenacity and patience have helped him to achieve his work goals, and he feels that Michael will continue to have a bright and busy future with the Office of Technology.

Michael considers himself a "computer geek," and he truly loves his job. When he isn't working, he enjoys spending time with his family, including his wife and their two daughters, who are in college.

Michael has a message to share with other people who are deaf, and that is to not give up. He wants to encourage others to seek out resources available from DRS and through the Americans with Disabilities Act to help them in their job search.

To those who are having a difficult time, Michael's best advice is "Don't worry about the past; just keep looking forward."