The soft buzzing of Jerry Bach’s automatic wheel chair fills the silence. Bach, “like the composer” he says, works as a meeter and greeter at Seguin Services’ used car lot, the not-for-profit that supports children and adults with disabilities. The morning is a dull gray pierced only by the neon green stickers on the car windows, but Bach remains energetic despite that. His job entails welcoming, talking and helping customers look for cars. Although he admits that he doesn’t know the names of car models when asked. He isn’t your standard used car employee but he isn’t alone here either. Bach is one of 27 disabled employees currently working at Seguin Auto Center.
In 2009 only 35 percent of working age Americans with disabilities were employed. At Seguin, located in Cicero less than a mile east of Berwyn, the employment rate is 75 percent.
Seguin has made it its mission to “integrate, enrich, and empower people with disabilities and other special needs, so they can be productive, valued members of society.” A large part of fulfilling that mission is making sure people with disabilities are an active part of the work force. Lori Opiela, vice-president of SEGUINWORKS, said she believes that a disabled person who finds employment gains in more ways than one.
“Working definitely contributes to the person’s self esteem. The person receives a pay check. They now have the power to buy items they want or participate in activities of their choosing,” Opiela said, “They are able to work alongside people without disabilities. They make friends. They give back to their communities. ”
Supportive Employment levels the playing field
The push to find employment for disabled people began in the mid-1980s. A federal initiative called “supported employment” was passed that uses federal money to provide job coaching, placement and supervision among other things. Supported employment gave hope to people that were considered traditionally unemployable.
In 1986, Seguin began its supported community employment plan. It started employing individuals in widely ranging work from retail to grounds keeping and large chains like Taco Bell, Jewel-Osco and the Bank of America.
When looking for good job placement, SEGUINWORKS makes sure it best matches the skills of the people. People with less serious disabilities often work for paychecks; while those with more serious disabilities do volunteer work. While they don’t make money, they do get valuable life experience and understanding of what a job is. Laura Gonzalez, assistant vice president of day services, explained that SEGUINWORKS sometimes hires people to work at Seguin directly to train them for outside work.
“We try to train individuals in specific skills that they can later use in the community in similar jobs…such as working in a laundry department,” Gonzalez said.
Not-for-profit takes an entrepreneurial approach
In the late ‘90s Seguin counselors started to think about ways that they could bring in additional revenue while fulfilling their mission. A not-for-profit organization, even one as successful as Seguin, does not get nearly enough of the money it needs from the state. In fact, the state of Illinois currently owes Seguin $1.7 million. As a result, it was decided that Seguin needed some of its own business. After receiving a hefty start-up grant, the Seguin Auto Center was opened in 2003. The center, which is directly across the street from Seguin’s main building, currently has 27 employees with developmental disabilities. It includes a car wash and a used car lot filled with vehicles that have been donated.
Seguin Garden and Gifts, built in May 2009, is another on-site business that offers jobs. Working in the gift shop, watering plants and getting them ready for sale are some of the jobs Seguin workers do. The auto center and garden center bring in extra revenue, but also allow for more supervision, hands on training and patience than an employer in a community setting might have.
Work to be done
A 75 percent employment rate at Seguin is certainly something to marvel at, especially since the unemployment rate in America is still at a worrisome 9.5 percent. Specifically, 244 out of the 325 adults they serve are in some kind of working capacity, either paid or volunteer work. However, Seguin is still trying to find job placements for the remaining 25 percent who are of working age. Seguin just received a 2 year grant of $320,000 from the Coleman Foundation which will go toward coordinating job placement throughout the area, including Berwyn. Jim Haptonstahl, senior vice president of Seguin Services, said Seguin has made big advances, but it hasn’t completely crossed the finish line.
“The reality is the adults we serve have life experiences that take them well beyond being children and with greater expectations and greater opportunities to show what they can do; they can demonstrate adult behavior and maturity. The value of work alone has its own intrinsic self fulfillment,” he said.
The garage is having a much busier morning than the car lot. Larry Mickrut is cleaning up a van for a customer while Tom Cummings wipes down a donated 1965 mustang that will be going up for sale. The floor is slippery with soap and water and the workers take careful steps not to slip. They are busy but it’s only 11 a.m. and there is still work to be done.