Florida Lions

Willing & Able

(News-Journal Article by Eleanore Osborne, September 12, 1999)

Imagine yourself a business owner, or a person responsible for hiring others. Imagine also being asked to interview someone who is blind and multi-handicapped. What might be your reaction?

You'd say "Fine" if you were one of many area employers who have given such workers a chance. You'd say "Fine" if you had seen these workers hold their own in the workplace and succeed. But, otherwise, you might be wary.

To encourage open-mindedness among prospective employers, members of the Volusia Manufacturers Association were invited recently to tour the Conklin Center for the Multi-handicapped Blind at 405 White St., Daytona Beach.

Here, a supported employment service has been operating successfully since 1987. Supported, in this sense, means that those with disabilities - the clients - receive staff support in finding a job, training for a job, and keeping a job.

Fast forward: It's several weeks later, and the site is a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Ormond Beach. Joni Boone, a Conklin Center client, steps off the bus and reports for a job she has held at the restaurant for nearly two years. Boone is visually impaired, but handles her tasks efficiently and enthusiastically - acting as hostess, arranging chairs, cleaning tables and policing the parking lot.

Previously, Boone's job had been done by counter workers, but after a pilot program, it was shown that their time was better spent on food preparation and other time-consuming chores. Thus, a job was created for Boone where none had existed before.

"It's called job carving, and we do that 90 percent of the time," said Paul Ritchey, supported-employment supervisor.

Putting the employer's needs first works for Boone, but, more importantly, for Kentucky Fried Chicken. In the past three years, Ritchey has re-directed his marketing efforts from a system of "beg, place and pray," to a business approach that is cost-effective for the employer. It's a long-term strategy, since contacts made today may not pay off for a year or two.

The Conklin Center, which is supported mainly by state grants and fees and private grants and fees, is also a major project of Florida Lions Clubs. And while one of the main goals is to prepare clients for paid employment, a great deal of preparation is often needed.

The center services those who have varying degrees of visual impairment, but clients have at least one additional disability, such as deafness, brain injury or cerebral palsy. About 75 people are served each year, all by referral, and there is a year's waiting list for services, which may last for a few weeks or several years.

First, clients are evaluated for skills and interest, and then receive instruction that may include preparation for employment and apartment living. One-on-one training, and long-term support all play a part. Mobility and learning to use public transportation safely to get to work, is a critical part of learning.

"Most of the people here have never had the privilege of choice," said Ed McCoy, Executive Director. At the Conklin Center, they have choices - including the choice to be there.

Even with coach support, "clients have the same headaches as you or I," said McCoy.

Some jobs are seasonal, companies experience changes in management and layoffs. When this happens, the support team is there to help clients find new jobs and maintain their independence.

Boone had held jobs as a laundry worker and custodian, before joining KFC. Others from the center work in the service industry as housekeepers, dishwashers, cooks and custodians.

"Two students have done so well they have bought houses of their own," said McCoy, "one, a condo in Ormond-by-the-Sea, and the other, a house in Holly Hill."

In preparing for employment, clients may be given in-house paid work opportunities, such as packaging and piece-work for Crane Cams and other companies. They'll work with counselors to determine where they are and where they want to go.

Often, companies will make reasonable accommodations to make employment possible. At Pizza Hut, for instance, computer keys most frequently used are covered with Velcro tabs, so that the person taking phone orders can do so by touch. The customer has no idea that the worker is blind and multi-handicapped.

"Pizza Hut has been an excellent employer," said Ritchey. "We have a corporate commitment - if a person can be a productive member of the team, they will work with us."

Sometimes a student may have multiple skills. More often, training is needed, which might include learning to read Braille, use a tape recorder or special telephone.

A good work ethic has helped students to succeed at the Florida Regional Library, at Day's Inn and other companies.

Some work at computers, using screens with large print or voice activation.

Five people from the center are now working at Metra Electronics, a Holly Hill company that makes installation kits for the auto stereo after-market. Here Scott Larson, 21, is working as an assembler. "I'm really fast at making these," he says. Supervisor Annie Johnson agrees. "I was excited about being able to work with people from the Conklin Center," she said. "It seems so easy for them to catch on."

Larson doesn't feel isolated there - he has lunch with fellow workers and is included, as any other worker would be.

As a baby, Larson had cataracts, then glaucoma. "At age 6, one minute I could see, and the next, I saw blood everywhere." He lost sight in his left eye. Surgeries followed at age 13, but two weeks before his 14th birthday, his right eye hemorrhaged, and he was completely blind.

He later entered the rehab center run by the Florida Division of Blind Services for six months' of basic living instruction and some experience in the greenhouse. "Then I came to the Conklin Center for eight months, and I've gone through cooking, cleaning, assembly in the workshop.

"You get money every two weeks. How much you do is how much you make. It goes by pieces, not by hours."

At Metra he earns $5.50 an hour. "It's nice. The people are very nice and kind, and the Conklin Center is very good at helping to support you. If you want to live in Daytona Beach, your home town or somewhere else, they don't forget you."

In fact, the Conklin Center has opened a vocational services program in Orlando to serveclients in Orange, Seminole, Osceola and Lake counties, a need determined by the Florida Division of Blind Services. There, too, the center focuses on providing long-term postemployment support and everyday living guidance.

In Orlando, the first business on board was Don Pablo's, where an employee works as a silverware roller, but hopes to study floral design at Seminole Community College.

Another business partner is Just for Feet, where a client was first hired as a stock clerk, and promoted to sales associate within six months.

Before going to work at Metra, Larson knew he wanted to do something either in assembly or with plants. "Paul looked around and showed me Metra. I wanted to work there,"said Larson.

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