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Building relationships — and bank accounts!

Updated: Sep 8, 2021

Man sits with resume in hand in an interview practice session
Martin Chan, with his resume in hand, talks with Job Developer Peter Boardman in the Vocational Program office.

The Olean Center Vocational team plays a vital role in a variety of ways when it comes to community-based day programming.

In addition to getting out in the community, individuals can establish relationships, gain an increased sense of pride, and earn some money for a greater level of independence.

Alan Yu has worked at McQuade’s Marketplace in Westerly for more than five years, and on a recent quiet Tuesday morning he and other McQuade’s employees were stocking shelves before the afternoon rush.

Man on knee stocking a grocery store shelf
Alan Yu stocks the condiments aisle at McQuade's Marketplace where he has worked for five years

Alan was unloading a full cart of boxes in the condiment aisle. He agreed to have his photo taken but remained focused on ensuring that older stock on the ketchup shelf was brought forward before adding new stock. He gave the same meticulous attention to reorganizing and stocking the salad dressings next.

Martin Chan has held several jobs, and on an early August morning he was in the Center’s Vocational Training office discussing a new position at Weekapaug Golf Club with Peter Boardman, his Job Developer at the Center. Martin had worked at the “99” restaurant and Precision Fitness previously, but the pandemic put a halt to that.

“I want to make some money to be able to do my own stuff,”

Martin said while working with Peter on the logistics of transportation and pre-employment paperwork.

Martin had recently completed his work trial at the club. If he gets hired, he’ll be clearing tables and helping the wait staff with whatever they need. “It went fantastic” Martin said of the trial. “They have a deck in the back and when you go out there you can feel the fresh air. The air is so crisp and nice.”

The Olean Center Vocational Program has opened other avenues for Martin as well.

During his time at Precision Fitness prior to the pandemic, he helped set up and clean equipment and was able to work alongside some of the trainers. With his natural interest in gyms, Martin asked Peter how he might be able to become a trainer. Now, Peter is supporting Martin’s efforts to complete an online personal training certification course.

Martin is eager to get back to Precision Fitness, which he considers his favorite job, because in addition to his interest in physical exercise, “Derek is a really nice guy,” he said, referring to Derek Vacca, owner of the facility. For now, however, the golf club position is the priority and part of the discussion between Martin and Peter on that August morning involved transportation to and from the club.

With the help of Center staff Martin learned to use the local shuttle bus service, so they discussed the use of a pass to help reduce the cost. It’s that kind of support that Peter and his colleague, Dawn Rathbun, a Job Coach, are there to provide. The level of help depends on each participant’s abilities and much of the support comes at the outset of employment. Once employed, Dawn checks in periodically on site, but otherwise the work relationship is left to the individual and employer.

“People used to think ‘we’ll call the Olean Center and pay them for workers,’ but that has changed,” Peter said. “It’s between the individual and the employer now and we support the relationship however we can with training, coaching, transportation, whatever it takes.”

Dawn added that local businesses are seeing more value in the program as well.

“I think some people are realizing how high functioning our participants are and how much they can really help,” she said. “And the other employees see how hard they work and say ‘well if they can do it I guess I can too.’”

Supporting participants in the vocational program is a comprehensive process, starting with pre-vocational classroom training provided by Dawn followed by job development with Peter that includes creating a resume, completing assessments to identify an individual’s strengths, interview skills, and figuring out the best method of transportation. Once a placement has been made, Dawn also provides on-site job coaching. If all goes well, there’s a “fade-away” period during which training and other on-site support decreases to just monthly check-ins to help with job retention. The check-ins are Dawn’s responsibility and allow her to observe the employee and address any issues so she can ensure a good relationship with employers and colleagues.

“We think of it as a two-customer approach,” Peter said. “The employer is just as much our customer as the individual.”

There are currently 22 businesses employing Olean Center participants and one of the many benefits to employers is a tax credit. The example of Martin and the Weekapaug Golf Club represents an ideal case. The club reached out to the Center after hearing a news report on NBC 10 about another participant’s successful work experience, Peter said.

From there, Martin was identified as a potential employee and a work trial was scheduled. A work trial, or on-the-job training, is a way to bypass the formal interview process for two key reasons. A traditional interview can pose an early hurdle to employment for Center participants, and, as Peter noted, “interviewing isn’t what they’ll be doing in the job!”

Peter has been with the Center for eight years and in the field for 13 years. Dawn started at the Center in 2015 and moved to the Vocational Department in 2017. Both enjoy the rewards of seeing successful job placements for individuals.

“They’re excited to be working. They’re excited to be making money. They’re excited to share their stories with their friends,” Dawn said.

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