As the Director of Supported Employment at VersAbility Resources, Vickie Greatwood doesn’t look at the person in front of her and see a disability.
Greatwood and her team see an individual with distinct likes and dislikes, full of short and long-term goals. Their job is to make life better for that person, a role they all embrace and can do more successfully now thanks to the addition of more resources due to a recent acquisition.
Hired Hands, a Carrollton-based job training and support organization, became a division of VersAbility in December 2020.
Hired Hands was owned by Anna Burns and her husband Tim at the time VersAbility acquired it. Anna and Tim were looking to retire.
Greatwood transitioned from being an Employment Specialist for Hired Hands to Director of Supported Employment at VersAbility.
The nonprofit’s Supported Employment Services program matches qualified candidates with employers and aims to be even more diverse and inclusive with Hired Hands on board.
“Now that we’re under the umbrella of VersAbility, we can combine forces for the betterment of the individuals we’re serving and work together to give the best possible services we can,” Greatwood says.
Greatwood earned her bachelor’s in communications from Virginia Wesleyan University and an associate’s in English/American Sign Language from Tidewater Community College. She envisioned being an interpreter; her mother was a nurse in a special education classroom, where Greatwood used to volunteer reading to the students. While searching for interpreting jobs, Greatwood discovered Hired Hands.
“I intended to work there for a year or two but loved it so much that I realized that’s where I belonged,” she says.
One of the Supported Employment department’s greatest strengths is its focus on the match between employer and employee. Team members encourage potential employees to examine what type of job works best for them and relates to their interests. There’s a misnomer that a person with a disability should be happy with any job.
“We make sure we’re focusing on the direction they want to go,” Greatwood says.
Hired Hands offered situational assessments for those who have never worked before. Greatwood was happy to expand that service as part of the VersAbility team.
“We put people in real-life scenarios,” she says. “For example, if someone is interested in stocking, we would go to a local grocery store, ideally something close to them so transportation is not a barrier, and they would actually get to be at the worksite and try the job as if they were hired.”
VersAbility’s relationships with local employers, now increased with the acquisition of Hired Hands, makes that exercise possible.
More established employees benefit from job development or marketing potential employees based on their interests and strengths to specific employers. VersAbility helps with the transition.
“Once a job is obtained, we provide coaching or support onsite,” Greatwood says. “We are often with the individual pretty heavily in the beginning, but then we slowly fade out. The ultimate goal is for them to be independent in the position.”
Sometimes it calls to be innovative. At Hired Hands, Greatwood recalls one employee who couldn’t read the checklist of required tasks. A staffer created a picture book of those tasks.
“Using the picture book, he was able to complete all of his job duties every day,” Greatwood says.
After an employee achieves independence, Greatwood and staff provide follow-along services or check-ins with the employee to ensure continued success.
“That way they know they still have our support,” she says. “We’re still in the background. If something comes up between visits, they can call us, and we can jump in and assist.”
Another service from Hired Hands now offered by VersAbility — independent living skills.
“Sometimes people need assistance outside of work for things that help set them up for success,” Greatwood says, “For example, someone might need help learning how to wash a uniform. Others may need to know how to take a bus to get to work. We help them read the bus schedule. Or maybe they just need help budgeting or opening a bank account. We help with all of that.”
Pre-employment transitional services (pre-ETS), working with high school students and recent graduates to help them earn skills to prepare for the workforce, is another available service.
“We find out what their interests are and try to introduce them to different employers and jobs that are related to them,” Greatwood says. “We also do mock interviews and resume building.”
With interaction limited during the pandemic, staff has been creative, setting up a virtual curriculum. Not everyone is comfortable using Zoom, so one accommodation made was to connect over a video game. Amanda Kuzma, an Employment Specialist who transitioned to VersAbility from Hired Hands, came up with this idea.
“That way our trainer was able to meet someone using a headset,” Greatwood says. “We were able to make whatever digital platform that worked for them work for us.”
The intensions of every Supported Employment staff member that transitioned from Hired Hands to VersAbility remain the same as when they were strictly Hired Hands — to personalize services to each individual and provide the tools needed to thrive professionally.
Greatwood could choose from multiple feel-good stories but shares this one.
A few years ago, she worked with a deaf refugee from The Congo who had no language training. Though he was able to communicate with family members, he struggled to do the same outside of the home. Teaching him a job that not only involved stocking shelves but scanning items into a computer as well was a challenge.
Greatwood worked closely with Melinda Gallagher, today VersAbility’s Deaf Team Leader who is deaf herself and understands those daily life struggles. Greatwood relayed the job instructions to Gallagher, who used her native signing skills to communicate them to the individual visually. He was then able to successfully perform all job duties.
“It was a collaborative effort with all three of us working together to communicate and it could not have been done without Gallagher’s way of taking the words and making them visual,” Greatwood says. “It was a great testament to how we can all work together along with the individuals we’re serving to create opportunities. Even with a barrier, such as someone not having any formal language training, there is a way to make it work if we put our heads together and think outside the box. Once he got the dots connected, it was a beautiful moment.”
Greatwood, Gallagher, and the entire Supported Employment team look forward to more breakthrough moments as part of VersAbility. They have seen the ripple effect employment can bring. They have watched many improve their health and fitness so they can perform their duties at work better.
They have watched confidence grow. They have been part of lives changing, just by simply helping individuals see what has been inside of them all along.
“It’s been a real privilege to be part of Hired Hands, and now being a new division of VersAbility, I’m excited to see what the future holds,” Greatwood says. “We really want to help people achieve their goals and show them how to do it.”