by John Lemus, Guest Contributor
From 2005-2013, I flew many miles for my service on the State DD Council, and I had a lot of small talk with people in the seat next to me. The inevitable question was always asked: “So what do you do?” My answer was almost always: “I’m a professional volunteer.”
In January 2013, I was able to answer the same question with the following: “I’m in charge of Community Relations for the largest Developmental Disability Non Profit in Spokane.” After many years of hard volunteer work and job searching on my own, I had been hired as the Community Relations Facilitator. I still remember the rush I felt signing my first offer letter.
On any given day, my job includes meeting with prospective new clients, going to schools to talk about the services SKILS’KIN provides, creating marketing materials, attending community meetings, attending resource fairs, connecting with city and state leaders, working with our promo vendors, managing our social media, planning launch events, and working to promote SKILS’KIN and our programs in the community.
I love my job. There’s nothing better than earning a paycheck and taking care of the things I need and want by myself! I work out in the community the majority of the week making connections for SKILS’KIN. Oftentimes, I find that people are surprised to see someone with developmental disabilities doing the job I’m doing. Most individuals who do the work that I do have 4 year degrees in public relations or marketing. It’s been really cool to be a part of breaking down the stigma that people with developmental disabilities can be successful in these types of roles.
I had a lot to learn in the beginning about the business side of the I/DD realm. For years, my career focused around the self-advocacy movement and advocating for policies and improvement; I now understand the bigger picture of how funding works, how services are provided, what the state program & waiver rules are, and what DDA has to do to implement them. Now, I know how to devise advocacy for programs around that.
One of the things that really surprised me about my job is how much I really needed to improve in certain areas. English/grammar and sentence structure has never been my high point. I’m blessed to work for an agency who understands this and who has created opportunities for me to improve in this area with the expectation that improvement happens.
SKILS’KIN is a data driven company. A lot of what I’ve had to learn on the business side is how to track lots of data for the items in our community relations plan and how to measure return on investment. I’ve learned to live the mantra of In God We Trust. Everyone Else, Please Bring Data.
A huge accomplishment is that this year I was accepted and received a scholarship to an absolutely amazing servant leadership program here in the local area. I’ve always wanted to go through the program, but the tuition is really steep. After only being with SKILS’KIN for a year and six months, they were willing without hesitation to fund the leftover portion of the program tuition. I love working for a company who supports me and is willing to invest in me as a leader.
If look back on my gap years, I would say the biggest piece of advice I would give to other individuals with disabilities looking for work is to try different things, even if they aren’t the jobs that you want. I knew what I wanted for employment, and I wasn’t willing to settle. This hurt me during my gap years. After I graduated from high school, I wasn’t able to find a job because I had minimal experience. I had been volunteering for my local Arc for a year. After I graduated from Community IMAGES, a local transition program, The Arc hired me as an AmeriCorps Volunteer. I worked for them for three years. After that, I still had trouble finding a job for seven years because I didn’t have experience outside of the disability field.
One of the biggest things I tell transition students is that a diverse resume is so important in a competitive job market. I would also encourage them to engage work incentive planners in their area. The myth that you will lose benefits because you are working is not true. In most cases, you may still receive a reduced cash payment; and if not, you may still be eligible for Medicaid through the 1619b program.
To employers, I would say that people with disAbilities are some of the most dedicated and hardworking employees you will ever have. We love jobs and providing for ourselves. Think outside the box. A lot has been done through customized supported employment to help make sure that, once you hire an individual, they will always have the training they need from their employment support specialists to help them retain their job or learn new tasks.
Five years from now, I hope to still be at SKILS’KIN, and maybe be Director of Community Relations! One thing is for sure: I wouldn’t be where I am today without a handful of amazing people who have supported me along the way.
My parents, who taught me the value of hard work.
AFS Team at The Arc of Spokane, for getting me started at a young age and teaching me to respect and understand the perspectives and struggles of parents who have children with disabilities.
Donna Lowary & Lance Morehouse, for teaching me everything you know and supporting me to move forward even when I made mistakes.
Marcie Osborne, who invited me to CEA’s annual employment conference where I met my current boss, and within a few month had signed an offer letter at SKILS’KIN.
The team at SKILS’KIN, who has been incredibly supportive of me and my visions for our community relations initiatives.
The DD Council, who invested many years of time and resources in me to help me become the leader I am today.