Nearly 100 members of the business community, job developers and coaches, advocates and enthusiastic and talented employees who happen to have an intellectual disability gathered at the Oxford Hotel on October 23 as part of the national celebration of Disability Employment Awareness Month.
Specific to Central Oregon, Kim Sellmann, the assistant director from Full Access, a local nonprofit, described the event as coinciding with the Oregon State Employment First Initiative, a two year old effort to educate and increase the awareness on the importance of giving all people with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to work in community at jobs that they would be hired for because of their abilities, not disabilities. This event at the Oxford Hotel was coordinated over the last year by a local group, the Deschutes County Employment First Team, who have implemented a grass roots community effort to expand the awareness in the business community of what great contributions people with intellectual disabilities are making when given the right opportunities and support.
Bend Mayor Jeff Eager was on hand to share his enthusiasm for the importance of this inaugural event that he hoped would continue to for years to come. “People with disabilities want and need the same fulfillment as everyone else in our community. As we now are a global economy our biggest competitive advantage in America is our human capital, our people,” cited Eager. He went on to share the importance of work to everyone in our community and that the practice of inclusion is just good economics in helping our businesses continue to remain competitive.
“The businesses we will be recognizing tonight have been employing people with disabilities in our community as part of their business strategy, often for years,” cited Sellmann. By publicly recognizing their work, it is the hope of the Deschutes County Employment First Team to expand the awareness and education of the entire community even more and continue to spread the word through local media and holding this event annually.
Joining Mayor Eager at the podium was Gary Danielle, the local branch manager of the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, to make the award presentations. Five major categories of awards were distributed including Best Small Business, Best Large Business, Best Enclave, Best Individual Business for Supported Employment and Best Overall Partner in employing people with disabilities and sustaining an inclusive work environment.
Accepting the award for the Best Small Business were Rick Leeper and Mike Schulerman from Round Butte Seed Growers. “The work crew from Abilitree does a great job and they also have great staff support. We don’t compromise quality with our seed packaging and we don’t have to with this partnership that has been ongoing for years,” stated Leeper. A crew of three people, plus a supervisor from Abilitree help with the bagging of small packages of grass seed, wildflowers and other items. The runner up in this category was long time business owner Lyle Hicks from Jake’s diner who has been employing local resident, Eric Bernabo for years as part of his customer service team. When Jake’s Diner received a Bend Chamber Award in 2009, “Eric was the first person on the stage from our company to receive the award with enthusiasm and pride in our accomplishment,” cited Hicks.
The Best Large Business Award went to Wal-Mart for employing many people throughout the High Desert in all of their stores. Runner up in this category was Ray’s Food Place who cited the excellent customer service that employee Johnny Goddard has been demonstrating for years at their Bend store.
Sometimes local employers, like Round Butte Seed Growers, employ small groups of adults with disabilities to work under the supervision of a staff member from a local provider such as Abilitree or the Opportunity Foundation.
The winner of the Best Enclave Award this year was presented to Jennifer Nelson of the Oxford Hotel, who employs a small group of talented workers from Abilitree in their laundry services department. These enclaves are set up as a contract with local providers so that employers do not have to concern themselves with payroll, insurance, training or ongoing support and can time their engagement based on the cycles and needs of their business.
Runner up in this category was Sara Bella Up-cycled who employ workers with disabilities in a variety of their manufacturing steps in creating locally made merchandise out of recycled material. Stated owner Sara Wiener, “Our partner employees actually do the repetitive work better than I do, that’s a fact and we could not grow our business without their help.”
The award for the Best Individual Business went to Printer Resources and accepting their award were store owners Frank Patka and Mark Giltner who probably also would get the award for the most enthusiastic acceptance comments. “We absolutely love Jason Blodgett,” stated Mark and Frank who have had the benefit of his services for years. There were three runner ups in this category including the High Desert ESD, the Athletic Club of Bend and Regal Cinemas.
The Best Overall Partner Award for going above and beyond in sustaining an inclusive work environment was Deschutes Brewery with the runner up in this category going to the Oxford Hotel. Brett Counsellor, distribution manager, accepted the award for Deschutes Brewery that culminated an evening of celebration and recognition.
As an attendee at this event what struck me was the universal commitment and belief by the employers present of why they do what they do in employing people with disabilities. It is about what makes good business sense, of how much of a positive impact it has on their work cultures, their customers and to the overall productivity of their business. It was not about charity or feeling a sense of obligation or duty. Whatever the reservations they had at the beginning of building such relationships (and we all have them) were soon washed away completely by their day to day experiences.
Prior to any actual award being given out at this event one got the strong sense by these selected employers that their awards were already long in their possession, not based on the beautiful plaques presented but based on the influence of the business relationships that had long been woven into their spirits by the people with intellectual disabilities they were privileged to hire and know. It was a privilege to attend and witness.