is funded by the Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities (KCDD). Design by Lawson Phillips Associates. Stories by Tim Hoyt. Photography by Lawson Phillips. Publication design by Arthur McCash and Lawson Phillips.

Click on the names below to jump to the individual stories.

LaDena Hempken

Employment Training Specialis - Tammy Carrell

Katherine Carpenter

Job Coach - Patty Waters

Employment Specialist - Leticia "Tish" Gutierrez and Maureen Harvey

Employment Specialists - Ryan Boyd and Amie Greene

Mrs. E's

Michael Riddle

Tyler Spenzel

Job Coach - Mary Williams

Anthony Schwager

Bea Scott

Poppin' Joe Steffy

Annie Anschultz

Kathryn Eli-Schneider - Transition Specialist

Justin White

Colin Olenick

Allison Loveland

David Vinsonhaler

Angela Klaassen


LaDena at Work

The caring attitude her supervisor describes appears to be part of her nature.

For almost a year now, LaDena Hempken has filled the job as a skills trainer in an Adult Life Skills center for KETCH, a Wichita agency that provides support and services for people with developmental disabilities.

Ms. Hemken works daily with severely disabled adults, many of whom have multiple disabilities and for the most part are non-verbal.. She said the job -- the first paying job she has held in 12 years -- gives a purpose to her life.

“I know what I’m doing every day when I wake up,” she said. “I’m helping my clients take care of themselves.”

It is not that Ms. Hempken hasn’t been busy during the years she was not employed. But because of the multiple disabilities she deals with herself -- including bipolar disorder -- rather than hold down a regular job, she regularly did volunteer work on a limited schedule. She volunteered as a tutor in schools, for the homeless, at the library, and, years ago, in an Alzheimer’s hospital unit.

“Even when I was not working, I was helping people,” she said. “Now I get to come to work to help people.

“I loved tutoring, but I love this more,” she said of the job at KETCH.

Besides bipolar disorder, Ms. Hemken has a sometimes painful nerve disorder called neuropathy, Turrets Syndrome and Epilepsy. The neuropathy sometimes makes it impossible for her to go out in the sun, the Turrets Syndrome occasionally causes her shoulders to twitch constantly, and the Epilepsy causes occasional seizures which for several years have occurred only when she sleeps.

“The things I face are really challenging,” she acknowledged.

Ms. Hempken got the job in the life skills center after being assigned to the KETCH employment division by Kansas Vocational Rehabilitation Services. Stephen Shaughnessy, director of employment and day services at KETCH, said it was unusual for the agency to hire someone they were working with as a client to find employment. But he said they had an opening that fit with Ms. Hempken’s vocational objective.

But because of the physically demanding aspects of the job such as lifting clients and changing diapers, Mr. Shaughnessy said they were not sure it was a fit for Ms. Hempken.

“For someone with disabilities, that was a concern with LaDena,” he said. “But she is doing well. She’s been very upfront and might sometimes say, ‘I have to sit or even use a wheel chair.’ We’re ok with that.” Bonita Thomas, Ms. Hemken’s direct supervisor at the life skill center, said she sees a lot of caring come through when Ms. Hemken works with the severely disabled people they serve.

“She is very personable with clients, “ Ms. Thomas said. “She is very helpful and very eager to learn.”

Ms. Hempken said the work in the life skills program is not just day care for the severely disabled people they work with. She said each client has a care plan, and she works with them on items in that plan. For example, she said part of the client’s plan may be to get a drink of water on their own.

In teaching this, Ms. Hempken said it’s important to teach skills step by step.

“You reach up for a cup, you close the cabinet door,” she said. “One step at a time.”

Staff also take clients out in the community, Ms. Hempken said.

“We’ve cleaned the ally, donated food, and made up packages for soldiers,” she said. “We do have a lot of fun. Even when you are teaching, you can still have fun.”

Ms. Hempken said the work does take a lot of patience.

“You’re going to have days when you feel like ringing everyone’s neck,” she said. “You just have to learn to deal with it, be constructive with it.”

Ms. Hempken said because of the volunteer tutoring she had done, when she began the process of finding employment, she wanted to find a job working with children. But when her employment specialists at KETCH suggested the job in the life skills program, she saw the possibilities of fulfilling her vocational goal.

“It’s the same field,” she said. “The clients are kind of like children, and I’m still helping people. I get a lot of satisfaction out of it.”

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Tammy at WorkTammy Carrell says it‘s far from what she’d call a “cookie cutter job.” But she wouldn’t have it any other way.

As an Employment Training Specialist for KETCH, a Wichita agency that provides support for people with developmental disabilities, Ms. Carrell is well known to businesses in town. She spends many a day visiting employers, most often with a client looking for employment.

“A lot of places it’s ‘Hi Tammy,‘” she said. “I get to know employers. I try to get to know their business a little bit.”

Ms. Carrell, who has been with KETCH’s employment division for six years, has a degree in marketing. But she said she could not imagine herself working in an ad agency or other office job.

“I think it would be boring,” she said. “But I still do marketing. I market people’s skills.”

Clients referred to KETCH employment services come from Kansas Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Services. Because KETCH specializes in working with people with cognitive disabilities, the majority of the referrals have a developmental disability.

A major part of the employment services at KETCH is coordination among and within agencies.

June Schneider, manager of community employment at KETCH, said when referrals are made, case managers and counselors from Vocational Rehabilitation Services, the KETCH Employment Training Specialist and a Job Coach from KETCH meet with the client and their family. At KETCH, Job Coaches help clients once they are hired to learn the skills needed at the workplace.

“We all work together as a team to support the individual,” said Ms. Schneider

A very important part of Ms. Carrell’s work is getting to know the person looking for work.

“We work one on one with people, get to know the person,“ she said. “Some agencies just shove people into a job. That is a set up for failure.

“I need to know their abilities, what skills they have,” she said. “I learn their job history, and in some cases, their criminal history. I try to learn more about what they want.

“From there, we’ll put it all together. I’ll help fill out applications and contact businesses. I’ll be their advocate.”

It is the teamwork that sometimes brings new ideas for employment. Ms. Carrell said during their regular department meetings, she tells the team what she’s been doing with various clients in trying to find employment.

“If you’re running out of ideas on somebody, you bounce it off everybody else,” she said. “What do you think of this idea for this person…have you tried that?”

KETCH will sometimes work with clients in community-based assessments. VR will assign a client to KETCH to place the client at businesses that provide temporary employment. VR will pay the wages for the client for up to 80 hours.

“This is just to see how ready they are to work, how they get along with co-workers, and that they show up on time,” she said. “Some haven’t worked in a long time.”

Ms. Carrell, who usually maintains a caseload of about 20 clients, said she has been taking on-line training, which she called helpful. She said a lot of the work is also learned through experience.

“I always want to learn more,“ she said. “But a lot of stuff you learn along the way. Each client is a different person.”

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Kathering at WorkThe Director of Nursing said it was among the worst resumes she had ever seen.

And no wonder.

Katherine Carpenter, 52, had been through a lot before presenting Brighton Place West Nursing Director Jil Godfrey what Ms. Godfrey called “a resume that made her almost unhireable.”

Although she had updated her Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) license, Ms. Carpenter has worked very little in the last 10 years. And that, Ms. Godfrey said, was the main problem with her resume. But here’s Katherine Carpenter’s reasons for that major employment gap: mental illness with diagnoses of Bi-Polar Disease and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, life under a bridge in cardboard boxes for two years, alcohol and drug addiction, a suicide attempt, and trouble with the law.

It wasn’t until a court-ordered trip to Valeo Behavioral Health Care in Topeka that Ms. Carpenter’s life made a major change for the better. The culmination of the improvement: a job at Brighton Place, brought on by help provided by Ms. Carpenter’s Employment Support Specialists at Valeo.

“I believe in giving people a second chance,” Nursing Director Godfrey said. “I’m known for hiring the unhireable. They need somebody to pick them up, help kick the dust off.”

And how is Ms. Carpenter doing?

“She’s wonderful,” said Ms. Godfrey. “She gets along with both staff and residents. She catches on really quickly.”

The job for Ms. Carpenter at Brighton Place West resulted in a celebration at a team meeting at Valeo Behavioral Health Care among employment support specialists and case managers. Ms. Carpenter had spent many an hour over almost six years at Valeo working with therapists, case managers, and employment specialists like Kassandra Griffin. She also worked with fellow clients in meetings to fight against addictions.

Ms. Carpenter said before she began working with Valeo staff, she had no idea that she had a mental illness.

“I didn’t know I was bi-polar,” she said. “I didn’t know how to deal with the symptoms, the anxiety and depression. In the past, I addressed the symptoms with alcohol.”

Working in Valeo’s Services for Employment Success, Ms. Griffin worked with Ms. Carpenter for a year before she landed the job at the nursing home. Employment Specialists in mental health centers get referrals from case managers, then spent time working with their client to find out the type of work the client is interested in and can do. All clients of employment specialists at Valeo and other mental health centers in Kansas have been diagnosed with severe and persistent mental illness.

Ms. Griffin helped Ms. Carpenter set up a nursing assistant refresher course through Kansas Rehabilitation Services, helped her prepare her resume, and went with Ms. Carpenter to her interview.

“Part of my job is to try to open the door a little bit wider,” said Ms. Griffin.

In working with Ms. Carpenter to find employment, Ms. Griffin said determining the type of work Ms. Carpenter wanted to do was easy.

“She’s a very caring person,” Ms. Griffin said. “You can tell she’s a good caregiver.”

Ms. Griffin also checks back in with Ms. Carpenter on the job site regularly to give added support, and works with Ms. Godfrey in setting employment hours for Ms. Carpenter. Because of her disabilities, Ms. Carpenter receives Social Security Administration benefits and access to medical insurance. Because of Social Security Administration rules, in order to keep her health insurance that pays for needed mental health drugs, Ms. Carpenter cannot earn more than $1,000 a month or risk losing benefits, although Ms. Griffin said they are working to access programs called Ticket to Work and Working Healthy that would allow Ms. Carpenter to work more hours and keep important medical benefits.

Ms. Griffin said many of her clients are very anxious about losing cash and medical benefits because of the high cost of mental health drugs.

Ms. Carpenter said she very much appreciates the help Ms. Griffin has provided.

“I love her,” Ms. Carpenter said.  “She gets on me when I’m not doing the right thing.”

People working with employment specialists at mental health centers sometimes disclose to potential employers that they are working with the mental health center, and others do not. Employment specialists say it is completely up to the client whether or not to disclose their mental illness. If the client does not chose to disclose, the employment specialist works for the client in the background. Ms. Carpenter did disclose.

Nursing Director Godfrey said she thinks it is important that any of her employees get the help or accommodation they need to do their job.

Because Brighton Place is a 50-bed nursing home for people with mental illness, Nursing Director Godfrey said Ms. Carpenter is especially helpful with residents. She has a knack for communicating with the residents, she said.

“I’m around people I do understand,” said Ms. Carpenter. “I’m proud of what I do.”

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Patty at WorkJob Coach Patty Waters keeps photographs of many of the clients she has worked with over 15 years on the job. She photographs clients after they have found successful employment, using the hundreds of photos as an incentive to new clients.

Picking up one of several photo albums she keeps by her desk, she points to various photographs:

“There’s Suzanne at Fazoli’s, Tim at Dillons, Marsha at Olive Garden, Leah at Sharp Line,” she says as she leafs through the album. “And there’s Paul at the bowling alley. He cleans shoes.“

Ms. Waters said she keeps the photos to show to new clients looking for employment.

“They show our clients they also can be successful in the community,” she said.

Ms. Waters is a Job Coach at KETCH in Wichita, an agency that provides support for people with developmental disabilities, including employment services. About 80 percent of clients looking for employment at KETCH have cognitive disabilities.

Job Coaches work directly with clients after the client starts a job, bringing  added support by helping him or her learn the job. After the client learns the job, Job Coaches return to the work site twice a month to make sure things are going well, and also come in when job duties are changed or added.

Many of the photographs in Ms. Waters’ albums also document the monthly “Job Club” KETCH holds for successful clients during summer months. This is another incentive for new clients to gain community employment success: get a job and join the Job Club.


Activities for the KETCH Job Club have included trips to go bowling, to the movies, and baseball games, to war memorials, and out to dinner. They even had a trip to city hall to advocate against the proposed elimination of Saturday bus service.

Ms. Waters said they were successful in helping keep Saturday bus service.

“Most of my clients ride the bus,” she said. “So many people have to have it just to get to jobs or go grocery shopping,” she said.

Stephen Shaughnessy, director of employment and day services at KETCH, said the Job Club was originally set up as an incentive for clients in their search for competitive employment, something extra they earn by gaining employment. But he said over the years, it has turned into a fun event for everyone.

“We have clients coming to the Job Club who have been in jobs for 12, 15 years,” he said. “It gives people the opportunity to socialize.”

Ms. Waters stressed that being open with clients and learning the client’s employment preferences is important. She said Job coaches at KETCH get to know the client before working with the client on the job site.

“We make sure that it is not the first day on the job that the client meets the Job Coach,” said Ms. Waters, pointing out she always works to be open and friendly with clients. “A lot of this job is if you have a certain personality. You know attitude is everything.”

Ms. Waters emphasized that it takes a team effort to find employment for people coming to them for help. She said she works closely with case managers and counselors at Kansas Vocational Rehabilitation Services, the agency that refers clients to KETCH. She also coordinates with Employment Training Specialists at KETCH who work with local businesses to find employment openings for clients.

“We all work together for the good of the client,” Ms. Waters said.

In her years as a Job Coach, there are very few jobs Ms. Waters hasn’t helped clients learn in Wichita. She said just driving through town brings back memories of working with many different clients. She mentioned working with people in restaurants, pizza shops, nursing homes, car dealers, uniform companies, pet stores, grocery stores, and hotels.

“I’ve been there,” she said of the ‘driving down the road’ memories. “I’ve done that job.”

As Ms. Waters worked with clients at a business, she sometimes gets an offer.

“There’s been a few times, they’ll say ‘hey, do you want a job too? We’ll hire you.’”

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Maureen at WorkMaureen Harvey and Leticia “Tish” Gutierrez know each other well. You can tell by their friendly banter.

Ms. Gutierrez explained that to help Maureen Harvey land a job wrapping silverware she made many a visit to the restaurant to visit with the restaurant manager.

“I was persistent,” Ms. Gutierrez said.

“Like you always are,” said Ms. Harvey.

“Look who’s talking,” shot back Ms. Gutierrez.

There is no doubt that Tish Gutierrez is persistent. As an Employment Specialists for Johnson County Developmental Supports (JCDS) for 22 years, it’s a needed trait in her job. She became an employment specialist after working for three years with clients of JCDS with behavior problems in a sheltered workshop and then on job sites with clients moving to community employment from sheltered workshops.

Working with Ms. Harvey, who is blind and has developmental disabilities, to find the job at Jose Pepper’s in Overland Park took about a year, and that job search came after a year of preparation.

The first step in the process of finding employment for people with disabilities assigned to the agency is getting to know the client and the client’s preferences for employment, said Ms. Gutierrez.

Meetings are held that include representatives from Kansas Vocational Rehabilitation Services (VR) counselors, employment specialists, and the client and his or her “circle of support,” which could include family members and friends. VR is the state agency that refers people looking for work to agencies such as JCDS. Through these meetings, the employment specialists learn the client’s work history, skills and what they want to do.

Then preparation for employment most often includes the following:

* Job skills testing, known as community-based work assessment. Companies volunteer for this program, allowing JCDS clients to work at their business to determine their skill level and work habits. VR pays the worker’s salary during this assessment period.

* For employment specialists, there are regular visits to the employer, trying to open the door to employment. Ms. Gutierrez says she prefers talking to employers directly, “hitting the pavement quite a bit.”

* For Ms. Harvey, a “jig” had to be created by JCDS. A jig is a device that helps the individual do the work. In Ms. Harvey’s case, a solid plastic tray was created with double-sided Velcro on the bottom to keep the tray in place. Ms. Harvey puts a previously tri-folded napkin on the tray and then places silverware on the napkin and wraps it.

* Once a client is placed in a job, Ms. Gutierrez says they make regular visits to make sure everything is going well. This, she said, is part of the selling point they make with potential employers. “We let them know we’ll be back in to support the client in the job,” she said. “And if the business has other duties they want the client to do, we let the business know we’ll come back in to offer support.”

Ms. Harvey, 31, works five days a week for about 4 hours a day, but often calls in to ask for extra hours.Ms. Gutierrez helped arrange taxi transportation to get her to work.

Ms. Harvey is good at the work, completing more than 400 rolls per shift.

“We enjoy working with Maureen,” said Jose Pepper’s Manager Bill Ridgeway. He said the staff at the restaurant are attuned to Ms. Harvey’s needs and when Ms. Harvey raises her hand when she needs more silverware or napkins, they respond as quickly as they can.

One server at Jose Pepper’s said she gets along very well with Ms. Harvey.

“Maureen has a good sense of humor,” she said. “She makes me laugh…she can crack me up sometimes.”

Ms. Gutierrez came to JCDS after earning a degree in Recreational Administration at Kansas State University with a minor in Special Education.

“I wanted to do something in therapeutic recreation,“ she said. “I knew I wanted to do something to help people. I think I have a knack for helping people.”

Ms. Gutierrez said employment specialists each have to find what works best for them in finding work for clients. But she said they must always keep one thing in mind:

“You have to always think of what is best for the consumer.”

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Ryan at WorkEmployment Specialist, Ryan Boyd told of one of his clients who got a job at an elementary school. The client was employed successfully but sometimes had panic attacks that would interfere with her ability to work.

“We found out that if we took a walk around the block every day,  she could deal with the panic,” Mr. Boyd said.

The short walk to alleviate panic attacks is just one of a myriad of techniques used by Employment Specialists in mental health centers across Kansas.

Mr. Boyd works at Valeo Behavioral Health Center in Topeka. He is one of seven employment specialists at the agency. Their job: help people diagnosed with severe and persistent mental illness find and keep employment.

“A lot of folks have a plethora of issues,” said Mr. Boyd. “We work on symptoms management.”

Valeo is one of 14 mental health centers across Kansas involved in a supported employment program utilizing evidence-based practices to help people with mental illness find and keep work. Many of their clients have not worked for years, or have had sporadic employment until their mental illness causes a problem that costs them the job.

Client diagnosis ranges from severe anxiety, depression, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, and many other mental health disorders.

The program was the result of a national project begun to identify best practices for gaining employment for persons with psychiatric disorders. Kansas was one of three states chosen to take part in the initial program involving supported employment.

The results so far: For all programs utilizing evidence-based practices in supported employment, 40 percent of people served are now working. About 7,600 people with severe and persistent mental illness are served by the program statewide.

After receiving a referral, which most often come from case managers at the mental health center, the Employment Specialist always takes the time to get to know the client and find out what kind of work they are interested in. They also talk with the client about their skills and background.

Amie at Work

Amie Greene, another Employment Specialist at Valeo, told of a client of hers who recently found a job at a pet store. Among other diagnoses, this client was dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and bi-polar disorder.

“She said she wanted to work with children or with animals,” Ms. Greene said.

In talking to the veterinarian where she takes her own dog,  Ms. Greene said she found a possible position for the client. She said she was honest with the vet, pointing out that her client seldom made eye contact and would be very nervous during a job interview.

The client got the job, and even surprised everyone by making eye contact and showing interest during the interview. At first she was assigned to clean cages and kennels and take animals for walks.

“Now they even have her administering medications,” Ms. Greene said, explaining that many times clients take on new responsibilities after they become comfortable in the environment and the routine.

According to Kristen Farley, who has been supervising Employment Specialists at Valeo for five years after working as an Employment Specialists for two years, a key to finding success for people with mental illness is truly believing everyone can work.

“A lot of people say that, but don’t really believe it,” she said.  “It’s a core part of the program. Ryan and Amie are so good at that.”

Mr. Boyd said finding successful employment is therapeutic for the client.

“If someone is not stable, hearing voices, anxious, we still consider them employable,” he said. “Employment can help them stabilize.”

Mr. Boyd said a big part of his job is working with employers to find jobs for clients.

“In this community, you go to any business, they probably know of us,” he said. “We educate people about mental illness.

“We don’t go out and ask for pity,” he added. “We think of all our clients as assets to companies. They all help out the business.”

There is no normal day for employment specialists at mental health centers. Ms. Greene shows the daily planner on her desk, with many scheduled appointments or dates crossed out or changed.

“There is never a dull moment,“ she said of the work. “Every day is different. The way the program works, the client comes to us, we help prepare their resume and then we job search together.”

Mr. Boyd said he has worked with clients with many different backgrounds, usually maintaining a caseload of 15 to 20 people. He mentioned working with someone with a law degree, a former manager of a major farm operation, an engineer, and many others.

“There are endless possibilities; our client base is so diverse, “ said Ryan.

Employment Specialists also work with clients and employers to help the clients Social Security Administration benefits.

Because of their disability, many clients receive Social Security Disability benefits that provides health insurance that pays for expensive mental health prescriptions and a cash benefit. SSA rules on benefits limit the amount of money people can earn from employment, although a program called Ticket to Work is available that allows additional earnings while keeping health insurance. The Working Healthy program also provides support for people with disabilities to keep their medical insurance while working.

Ms. Greene said much of their work with clients is done in the community, not in an office.

“It’s been proven clients do better meeting in the community rather than some stuffy office,” she said. “We meet where they’re comfortable.”

Kristen at Work

And after working with a client and finding employment, the Employment Specialist keeps in contact both with the client and the employer. She said this is even true with closed cases, where successful employment was achieved.

“We don’t want to just leave,” she said. “A lot of people struggle and need additional support. I have a client who has been at Walmart for a whole year. He still meets with me once a week; he still has his obstacles.”

At Valeo, Employment Specialists can call on help from Certified Peer Specialists, people who have mental illness but have learned to manage symptoms and can help others trying to overcome similar obstacles. At Valeo, there are two Certified Peer Specialists.

Ms. Greene told of one client of hers who was having difficulty on the job, getting “stuck” every day at a certain time when he would begin showing repetitive, ritualistic behaviors. She said a Certified Peer Support specialist helped her work with the client to identify when symptoms came and how to deal with them. The Peer Support Specialist helped do this by learning of the client’s strong interest in music, and getting him to think of songs when he became stuck.

Mr. Boyd said Employment Specialists work closely with case managers and even therapists to help the clients. There are weekly meetings of staff to look for ways to help clients.

“Treatment has a lot of helping hands,” he said.

Ms. Farley, the Employment Specialist supervisor, says one of the joys of the work is to watch clients who find employment change for the better.

“They are back in society,” she said. “They learn how to connect to people. You see them change, become more outgoing.”

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General Manager of Mrs E'sPart of it, he said, is because it’s the responsible thing to do. But restaurant general manager Mark Maranell also points to definite business benefits too. And over the years, the people with developmental disabilities he has hired have proven to be excellent employees.

Ekdahl Dining Commons, or Mrs. E’s, at 1532 Engel Road on the Kansas University campus in Lawrence, currently employs 11 people with developmental disabilities among about 150 full and part-time staff. Since 1996, Mrs. E’s has employed 156 people with developmental disabilities. The largest dining facility on campus, Mrs. E’s is part of KU Dining Services, under the Kansas Memorial Unions Corporation.

Mr. Maranell explained that the restaurant employs many college students, but students do not often like to take the morning and lunch shifts. He said the partnership he has developed with Joblink, the employment program for people with developmental disabilities at Cottonwood, the Community Developmental Disabilities Organization in Lawrence, is a key to filling this time slot.

“They take the job seriously and do a good job,” Mr. Maranell said of his employees with developmental disabilities.

The positions filled include maintaining the dining room, washing dishes, keeping the salad bar full, and general clean up. Mr. Maranell said these workers show dedication to the job, and a good attitude.

“These team members average about 5 ½ years on the job and in a business that can see high percentages of staff turnover, that type of dedication is certainly appreciated,” he said.

Mr. Maranell listed other advantages to employing people with developmental disabilities. He said they:
- Have excellent attendance records.
- Demonstrate a sincere cheerful and positive attitude with a can-do spirit.
- Develop a good amount of dedication to their work.
- Display dependability and reliability (a key characteristic, he said, that is sometimes lacking in a few of our college student employees), and
- They are proud of their jobs and consequently show that pride in their work.

Most often, persons with disabilities employed at Mrs. E’s start with a Joblink job coach, assigned to help him or her learn the job and keep on track. The job coaches normally work with several employees, and often are able to fade away as the person gets used to the job.

“Job coaches make a huge difference,” Mr. Maranell said. “We have had people with varying degree of disability, and as they learn the job and become more confident, they apply for a full-time job and do very well. Then they don’t really need to avail themselves of the job coach any more.”

Mr. Maranell said hiring people with disabilities also brings diversity to both staff and customers.

“It’s a good experience for customers and fellow workers as well,” he said. “We really do try to embrace that.”

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Michael at WorkAt UniFirst Corporation industrial laundry in Wichita, Assistant Production Manager Jeff Hader said he knows that many businesses won’t even consider hiring people with disabilities. But Mr. Hader says this is a mistake, especially when he has an example like Michael Riddle.

“If you give him something to do, he doesn’t stop until it’s done,” Mr. Harder said. “His attitude is second to none, he’s reliable, and he works well unsupervised.”

Mr. Riddle, 22, has been at Unifirst for three years, going back even before the company, formerly called Western Uniform, was purchased by the national corporation. It was Mr. Hader who called the Kansas Elks Training Center for the Handicapped, or KETCH, to ask about hiring someone from the training center for janitorial work after he had another positive experience with hiring individuals from KETCH at a previous job.

Now Mr. Riddle, who has Autism, mild Intellectual Disability and Schizophrenia, is working a 40-hour week, has health insurance through the company, a 401(k) savings plan, and profit sharing. He also gets vacation time, but doesn’t always take it.

“Last year, he lost three or four vacation days because he just forgot to take them,” said Michael’s mom, Kima Mora-Gibbs. “He just loves to go to work.”

At the laundry, which is a huge, highly mechanized plant, Mr. Riddle now works on the south dock, where he unloads trucks, and sorts and weighs rugs, towels and mats. He puts the sorted laundry in large bags that are transferred on an overhead conveyor belt to the washing machine area.

Michael’s Individual Site Job Coach from KETCH, Patty Waters, originally helped train him at the plant, working with him about a week. Now she comes by just a couple of times a month to check up. Mr. Hader said if he decided to move Michael to a new position such as the washing machine area, he would not hesitate to call on Mrs. Waters to help with training.

“If something came up, I’d call KETCH and they would help retrain,” he said.

Mrs. Waters said Michael was recognized by KETCH last year as Community Employee of the Year. She said very few of her clients work as many hours per week; most community employment jobs are part-time.

Michael said he had a series of jobs prior to coming to Unifirst, including community jobs through Chisholm Life Skills School at Blockbuster Video and Cessna Aircraft. He also was employed at KETCH after graduation but soon outgrew this work.

“His supervisor said he did the work so well and so fast, they realized he needed another job,” said Mrs. Gibbs.

It was at Blockbuster, where Michael cleaned shelves and put away videos, that he began a love affair with movies. His mother said he has quite a collection of DVDs and Compact Disks in his room. Michael lives in a KETCH-sponsored home with four other men. His mother said he loves this living arrangement and the independence it offers. Michael takes the city bus to and from work.

Michael’s mother is quite proud of the advancement her son has made in life, especially considering some of the diagnoses she received about him when he was very young. She said officials recommended he be placed in a state hospital and she was told he might not ever walk or talk.

“I told them they were all crazy, and to this day, Michael has proven them wrong,” she said. “He has a good job, a diploma, he’s working hard on his social skills.” She said she has told Michael that his various diagnoses are only “labels” that he can overcome.

“I told him that because of the labels, you have to prove you can do more and better,” she said. “Labels stop you only if you let them.”

She also has high praise for the programs that helped her son advance. She said this started with excellent job skill training at Chisholm. She said the programs at KETCH and the ARC of Sedgwick County have also been very helpful.

“The programs do work; they’re phenomenal,” Mrs. Gibbs said.

At UniFirst, both Mr. Hader and Production Manager David Ricks said Michael brings something special to the job -- a fantastic memory. Mr. Hader said he’ll often mention to Michael some important meeting or telephone call he has to be at or make at a certain time because Michael will remind him in plenty of time.

Mr. Ricks said Michael’s excellent memory paid off for himself and fellow workers another time. During a company-wide meeting, Mr. Ricks said he mentioned that he would buy donuts for the crew. Everyone else forgot this promise, but Michael brought it up a week or so later.

“His mind is kind of like a steel trap,” Mr. Ricks said. “No one remembered this except Mike.”

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Tyler at WorkTrego Grade School special education teacher Cindy Malay offered to grocery shop for a friend in Wakeeney who has multiple sclerosis. No need, the friend told her, Tyler is at the store to help.

“The young man Tyler helps me put my walker aside and takes my list,” Mrs. Malay reported the woman said. “He knows where everything is.”

Tyler Stenzel, who has Williams Syndrome, a developmental disability, has advanced quickly since he started working at the Wakeeney Food Center in May of 2006 while still in high school. When he started the job tryout in school, a paraprofessional helped Tyler learn the grocery store job. Now 23, he’s become a trusted full-time employee.

“He does everything adult employees do,” said Food Center Supervisor Cindy Welch. “He carries groceries out, he sacks, he faces groceries on shelves, he helps customers find stuff.

“And, this is very important, Tyler is in charge of making the coffee,“ Mrs. Welch added. “Customers love him and he loves customers.”

At first, it was a learning process for a few of those customers. Mrs. Welch said when Tyler first began at the store, several people didn’t want him to carry their grocery sacks to their car, possibly afraid he would drop something. But as time passed, this changed.

“Now I have customers request I call Tyler; there was a change in attitude,” she said.

Mrs. Welch said the Wakeeney Food Center, an IGA store, has participated in the job tryout program for students with disabilities at the high school for several years. She said the program has been very successful for them.

“When I was four years old, my dad had a massive stroke,” Mrs. Welch said. “He was 35 years old and he died when he was 70. He didn’t have good speech and one side of his body was paralyzed.

“So I grew up with the knowledge there are things some people can do and some people can’t,” she said. “There’s a place for all of them.”

That work at the grocery store is a good match for Tyler is apparent. Mrs. Welch said Tyler regularly borrows the professional grocery magazines she gets to study what other stores are doing.

“He compares our prices with other grocery stores,” she said.

Tyler Stenzel’s success is his own, but classmates, friends and family also are part of how that success came about. Classmates from both Trego Grade School and Trego High School in Wakeeney have been inclusive, reported Tyler’s mother, Sue Benisch.

“He had support at both the upper and lower schools,” Mrs. Benisch said. “Kids grew to love him, as Tyler. They took him under their wings.”

When asked, Tyler took just a second to start naming students he went to school with who remain close.

“There’s Nick, Toby….there’s a lot,” he said, adding that he communicates with lots of friends and former schoolmates on Facebook.

Mrs. Malay, Tyler’s former grade school special education teacher, said Tyler has found his niche at the grocery store. Mrs. Malay also praised Tyler’s family.

“His mom always gave him good support,” she said. “She was always there to back him up or push him to be all he could be.”

Tyler’s mom, Mrs. Benisch, said Tyler recently enrolled in the Kansas Working Healthy Program, which allows him to save more of the money he makes in his job and still keep needed Medicaid health insurance.

Mrs. Benisch said another of Tyler’s interests is railroad trains, and sometimes he’ll come running up the stairs at their house with his binoculars when a train comes through Wakeeney.

“We don’t even hear it coming, but Tyler does,” she said.

At the grocery store, Freezer Manager Mickie Rose said Tyler works very well with other employees.

“He’s really a good kid,” she said.

Evening Manager Cheryl Bowen said Tyler is amazing in his ability to be in the right place at the right time.

“I pick up the intercom to call him to come carry out and he’s right there,” she said. “I think he’s psychic.”

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Mary and Robyn at WorkShe has donned the uniform of a nursing home dining room worker, helped clean cat and rabbit cages at the Humane Society, worked in dining rooms of fast food restaurants, and helped as a courtesy clerk at a grocery store.

All these occupations are part of Mary Williams’ occupation.

For four years, she has been a Job Coach for JobLink, the employment program for Cottonwood Inc., the developmental disability center in Lawrence.

As a Job Coach, or Employment Consultant, she finds employment for persons with developmental disabilities -- some with severe physical and mental limitations -- and then trains the newly-hired employees until they master the job.

But before she can find her clients a job, Ms. Williams said she has to understand their strengths and limitations, their skills, and, most importantly, their interests. Working with the client, other JobLink staff at Cottonwood Inc., and often family members or other supporters, an Individual Support Plan is developed that details the client’s strengths and their skill level. Ms. Williams said she also meets with the client individually to help develop a profile.

“I get to know their personality,” she said. “Are they someone who would be good with people? Or, some of them don’t like to be around other people, and I’d try to find them a job behind the scenes, like a warehouse. And, of course, how fast can they work? Can the person see details, read, work fast?”

Then it’s out meeting with local business managers to try to match the client’s attributes to an open position, most often part-time with limited hours.

Robyn Herzog, who has developmental disabilities, is one of Ms. Williams’ successes. Surrounded by support from fellow employees, Robyn has been a dining room attendant at Brandon Woods Retirement Center for three years. She works 20 hours a week setting and clearing tables, bringing drinks to diners, and helping with other dining room chores.

Mary Williams said when Robyn first got the job, she worked with her for about two weeks helping her learn the job.

“I’d show her how to do it,” Ms. Williams said. “Then I’d start observing, doing what’s called ‘fading’ by gradually pulling back” and checking on how Robyn was doing after Robyn completed her shifts. Now, Robyn is doing so well that Mary checks back just every few weeks.

“Robyn learned fast and wants to work hard,” Ms. Williams said. “She had her fears, but she got over them.”

Don Minter, food and beverage director at Brandon Woods, said when Ms. Williams first contacted him about hiring people with developmental disabilities, he didn’t know what to expect. But the people he has put on the staff from JobLink have done well.

“Mary calls when she has people that might fit into our system, ” he said. “We don’t hire them all, but we hire a fair share. I wanted to help the community; help people grow.”

Concerning Robyn Herzog, Mr. Minter said her responsibilities have increased as time passes. He especially praised Robyn’s interaction with Brandon Woods res idents and other staff. Robyn is especially close to Trudy Sipes, a geriatric resource specialist at Brandon Woods, who has taken Robyn under her wing.

“We’ve got something really special here, especially the way Robyn and Trudy relate,” Mr. Minter said. “It’s very heartwarming.”

Community jobs for persons with developmental disabilities are very important, both financially and for self-esteem. Ms. Williams said she has seen people change tremendously once they get work outside the Community Developmental Disabilities Center. She remembered one client who was very childlike and dependent before landing a job in the community.

With a community job, she said, "it became ‘I’m an adult. I have to follow the rules. I don’t get special treatment. I better grow up.’"

“I’ve seen that happen,” she said.

But Ms. Williams also does not discount the financial improvement in the lives of people with developmental disabilities who are able to find community employment. She said most receive disability payments, but this keeps them at a poverty level income.

“They’re still not earning enough to take a trip, or buy clothes,” she said. “For some, even four hours a week is a great help.”

Job openings are often dependent on the attitude of the corporation involved, Ms. Williams said.

“Some corporations encourage managers to hire people with disabilities; they see it as a community service,“ she said. “And some, I don’t think they encourage it.”

For JobLink clients, Kansas Rehabilitation Services will pay for things like work clothes or transportation costs for the first 90 days of employment. For clients put on a job on a “Community Job Tryout” basis, the agency will also pay wages for a few weeks to see if the job will work.

Sometimes the job coach’s job is a balancing act. Ms. Williams said if the person she helped get hired doesn’t fit in, she has to pull back.

“If the employee does something the employer doesn’t like, I’ve got to get it straightened out,” she said. “We might lose the employer.”

And if she can’t get it fixed?

“You’ve got to advocate for the employee, but you have to draw the line,” she said. “You have to look at the employer and say ‘I don’t think this is going to work.’ I tell the employer and the employer does the firing.”

But often, the Job Coach can fix problems that may arise.

“That’s where the creativity comes in,” she said. “What is really important is a good relationship with the consumer. Because you can’t fix the problem unless they respect you.”

Ms. Williams, who previously was a high school teacher in northwest Kansas and worked as a recruiter for Americorp for several years, remembered a client who loved cats.

She was able to find employment for at the Humane Society, but the first time the client was sullied by cat feces while cleaning up, he wanted to quit.

“First I calmed him down,” she said. “Then I told him, if you walk out of here, you will be leaving those cats you made friends with. Look at those cats -- you tell them you’re leaving.

“He put his gloves back on,” she said. “And he was very successful. He became head of the cat room.”

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Anthony at WorkIt was a video about bees shown to his third grade class more than a decade ago that started things. Now Anthony Schwager is a spring and summer fixture at the Saturday Farmer’s Market in Lawrence, where he sells honey and other products of the bee business he and his family have built.

At the Lawrence market, customers come in waves, purchasing honey, lip balm, honey straws, or other wax or honey products from Anthony‘s Beehive. Some stop to study the observation hive on a table, watching the bees do their magic, as Anthony works to keep honey jars clean and stocked and Anthony’s assistant, Aaron Kim-Luellen, waits on customers at a table set up in front of the truck used for hauling the goods.

“I told my parents I wanted bees,” said Anthony, who has mild Intellectual Disability and Epilepsy. “They said no; they didn’t know anything about bees.”

Anthony persisted, said his father, Tony Schwager.

“It became obvious pretty quickly it wasn‘t just a whim,” he said. “Now he’s been doing this a long time. That’s what’s cool about it; he’s got the skill set to do all of this.”
Anthony, now 23, even has an observation bee hive in his bedroom.

“Just to look at,” he said. “They are fun to watch. They work their whole lives.”

Setting up at the Farmer’s Market in Lawrence is just one of several sales avenues for Anthony’s Beehive. They also stock honey and other products in several area grocery stores and have an active web site. And they set up shop at Farmer’s Markets in Overland Park and Kansas City.

Tony Schwager, who teaches shop at Baldwin High School, said the long-term goal of Anthony’s Beehive is financial independence for his son.

“But the biggest thing is, he has his dignity and self-worth,” Mr. Schwager said. “He’s not getting a check from the government each month.”

Anthony’s assistant at the Farmer’s Market, Mr. Kim-Luellen, has been with the business from the start. Tony Schwager said Mr. Kim-Luellen, who previously provided respite care for Tony Schwager and his wife Terri, is part of the team that helps make Anthony’s Beehive a success.

“Aaron is part of Anthony’s circle of support,” Mr. Schwager said. Anthony also said his brother and sister help the business with marketing and filling orders but do not work dire ctly with the bees.

Mr. Kim-Luellen, a mathematics teacher at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, remembers the beginning of Anthony’s Bee Hive.

“I met Anthony in 1997 at Anthony’s 12th birthday party,” he said. “At the farmer’s market, we set up the honey on a one-foot square end table, and brought everything to the market in a two-door Honda Civic.”

“I like Anthony a lot; he’s real easy to be around,” Mr. Kim-Luellen said. Another factor in the development of Anthony’s Beehive is what he learned in both an entrepreneurship class at Lawrence High School and in the school district’s post high school Community Transition Program, known as C-Tran.

Both Anthony and his father mentioned these school programs as important to both Anthony’s development and the development of the business. Anthony’s Beehive also won a grant from the Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities that helped the business buy needed supplies when they were starting out.

In the entrepreneurship class, Anthony put together a business plan to add the sale of lip balm made with honey to his business. In a contest following completion of the class, Anthony won an award for Kansas High School Entrepreneur of the Year.

In the Community Transition Program, which helps students with disabilities ages 18-21 who have completed high school credits transition to adulthood, teacher Jenny Rovel Jones said Anthony “blossomed” in the program. She said C-Tran helps students with everything from cooking for themselves to making doctor appointments or grocery shopping.

“Anthony was pretty shy when he first came,” she said. “It helped his work skills and improved his telephone skills. He was able to make a sales pitch over the phone.”
“Anthony was a prize student,” Ms. Rovel Jones said.

Anthony’s Beehive also provides employment opportunities for other people with disabilities by contracting with Cottonwood Inc., the Community Developmental Disabilities Organization in Lawrence, to make honey straws. People with disabilities working at the agency do this work on a pay -for-pieces-completed basis.

“It’s really nice to have Cottonwood on board,” Mr. Schwager said.

During the spring and summer months, Anthony and his father visit their hives, which are located in agriculture areas in Douglas, Leavenworth and Franklin Counties. At the end of the summer, they visit each hive to gather honey for the next year’s sales. Mr. Schwager said they have had up to 200 working hives, but a very difficult winter caused some hives to fail and this spring they are down to about 60 hives.

“Usually we lose a third over the winter and anything over half is a disaster,” he said. “This last winter was a disaster.”

On a recent visit to a hive location along the edge of a field in North Lawrence, Anthony and his father discovered that some of their hives had died off over the winter. But a nice surprise was that wild bees had taken over one of the bee boxes. Mr. Schwager said the new hive was not large, but it was strong.

Anthony said the queen in the new hive appeared healthy, which is key to a hive‘s success. He estimated there are up to 50,000 bees in a hive.

“She’s a good queen,” Anthony said of the North Lawrence hive. “She controls the hive by her scent. If there’s no queen, there ar e no bees. And no bees means no honey.”

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Bea at WorkBea Scott carries two large tote bags full of clean, folded towels on her lap as she pulls her wheelchair into the business. She’ll leave with different bags of at least the same size, full of towels that need cleaning.

It’s pick up and delivery day for Bea’s Business. This Monday, she’s at the Headlines Salon on 23rd Street in Lawrence, accompanied by personal assistant Becky Stakes, who drives the van with “Bea’s Business” printed on the side panels.

Bea, 30, who has cerebral palsy and other developmental disabilities, has run a laundry service for beauty professionals since 2008. The Headlines Salon has been a steady customer for a year and a half.

The smile on Bea’s face as she greets salon owner Desiree Strecker shows how much Bea values the business. She talks to Ms. Strecker about the storm that hit Lawrence the night before, and her smile broadens as she accepts a payment check.

“It’s a crazy storm, and hail too,” Bea says.

Ms. Strecker said she values the service Bea provides. She said she heard about the laundry business through one of Bea’s personal assistants. It’s a service the Headlines Salon very much appreciates.

“We really needed someone to do it,” Ms. Strecker said. “She’s doing a fantastic job.”

It was during a 2007 conference in Wichita on entrepreneurship for people with developmental disabilities that the idea for a laundry service for beauty salons began to take shape. Bea’s mother Saunny Scott, who adopted Bea when Bea was eight months old, said they really didn’t know the conference subject when they went; the trip was more of an opportunity for Bea to have a small vacation.

“And in some ways, the conference changed our lives,” Mrs. Scott said.

Mrs. Scott said after hearing entrepreneurial business success stories from others with developmental disabilities at the conference, they decided to give a specialized laundry service a go. Then they spent almost a year of planning and fund raising to get the business off the ground.

But Mrs. Scott said the impetus for Bea’s business also came from two other sources: The job training Bea received in high school, and the hair salon owner where Bea has her own hair done.

In some ways, Bea transitioned into the laundry business from what she learned at school.

“At Lawrence High School, the special ed kids did laundry for the Physical Education Program; washing, drying and folding towels,” Mrs. Scott said. “She did get good job experience.”

Then when Mrs. Scott was thinking about Bea’s future as Bea was getting her hair done, the owner of the salon volunteered business to the future entrepreneur. Mrs. Scott said Janine Colter, owner of the Hidden Jewel Hair Salon in Lawrence, was the first customer for Bea’s Business.

“She said ‘Bea can do my towels,’” Mrs. Scott said.

Besides the laundering service, Bea also works part-time at Cottonwood Inc., Developmental Disabilities Center in Lawrence.

Bea still has occasional outbursts, something Mrs. Scott said are less frequent now.

“When there’s no work, she’s unhappy,” Mrs. Scott said. “But the main thing is, she’s matured a lot.”

Becky Stakes, Bea’s personal assistant with Trinity In-Home Care, said Bea has been “a great employer” for her. Besides driving the van, Ms. Stakes helps Bea prepare for her work day in the morning, sometimes prepares meals, and drives her on other outings, such as to a dance they were attending this Monday.

“Once you get to know her, you’re friends forever,” Ms. Stakes said of working with Bea.

Ms. Stakes said she and the Scotts are working toward finding a duplex for the Scotts to live, with Bea on one side and her mom on the other. This, she said, would increase Bea’s independence by giving her a separate home near her mother while at the same time eliminating the problem of dealing with a second floor they currently have.

“It would help Bea become more independent; she would have her own space,” Ms. Stakes said. “Now, she can’t get up and down stairs with her wheelchair.”

The laundry room, with four large washing/drying machines on one side and a folding table on the other, opened in May 2008. The machines have a special sanitizing cycle necessary for cleaning beauty salon towels. The laundry room is an addition built on the side of the Scott house in Lawrence.

Funding for the house addition came from a special Social Security fund for persons with disabilities, while grant money from the Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities paid for the washing machines and the initial stock of detergent. Kansas Vocational Rehabilitation Services also was an important funding source for the business.

Mrs. Scott said they are in need of at least one more washing machine because of an increase in business recently, including a couple of recent additions.

One of those new businesses using Bea’s Business is Studio Alpha, a fitness center in a shopping center on Iowa Street in Lawrence. Owner Tyler Naylor said he heard about Bea’s through a friend that owns a beauty salon. Bea comes by to exchange clean towels for dirty towels every other Monday.

As Ms. Stakes pulls the van up to Studio Alpha, owner Tyler Naylor has a laundry bag ready. And after they exchange dirty towels for clean towels, Bea calls Mr. Naylor over to shake hands.

“You’re doing a great job,” Mr. Naylor tells her. “Keep up the good work.”

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Joe at WorkJoe Steffy’s parents admit it started off as a way to prove the school system wrong. What it turned into was a future for their son. A future wi th his own community surrounding him.

Joe’s father Ray Steffy said they were told that because Joe has Down’s Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and is non-verbal, Joe had no chance of future employment. His future was most likely in a group home, living with others with disabilities and maybe doing busywork in a very controlled atmosphere.

Ray and Joe’s mother Janet Steffy knew better. They lived with Joe.

“We saw more than that with Joe,” Mr. Steffy said. “At home, what we saw was that Joe was very capable of working. I said ‘we’ll prove Joe has capability.’”

The Steffys set out to show the world what Joe could do. But what Joe, now 24, has accomplished in the years since then has amazed even his parents. In many ways, Joe Steffy -- Poppin’ Joe -- has become a nationally-known symbol for successful employment of young people with developmental disabilities.

Joe’s success might appear to start with his business, Poppin’ Joe’s Kettle Corn, which has increased sales tremendously since it began in 2005. Or the success might be measured by the number of appearances Joe has made as a speaker at recent national autism conferences across the country, using a video slide show to display the success of his business.

But Janet and Ray Steffy point to something else that began success for Joe -- the community around him.

Before Mr. Steffy had the idea for a Kettle Corn business for Joe while on a trip to Alaska years ago, there was the swimming coach that found a place for Joe on the pool maintenance team after he didn’t do well in regular swimming classes. Joe worked that job five summers and learned swimming in one-on-one sessions with the coach.

And there was a horse-riding trainer, who realized that besides learning to ride horses, Joe could also take on responsibility. Soon Joe was in charge of closing gates and helping with chores.

Ray and Janet Steffy are big believers in working with the community that surrounds their son to find what he can do and what he wants to do.

“This is about building a community which Joe is a part of and contributing,” said Janet Steffy. “Community teaches you the skills.”

Today, there are Joe’s community contacts around his mobile home near his parents place in rural Louisburg. He has had jobs in the festival off-season working with real estate agents setting up furniture in homes for sale or cleaning up construction sites.

“We can change how one community sees Joe,“ said Mrs. Steffy. “People know and like Joe here.”

Joe Steffy has the kettle corn business down to a fine art. First he dumps a measured load of kernels into a large black and silver kettle, red hot from a gas furnace. With a large wooden spoon, he quickly starts stirring the kernels as his father urges him on. Then he adds a measure of sugar and continues the fast-paced stirring.

“Faster Joe, faster!” says Ray Steffy. “Ready to dump?”

Joe dumps the popped caramel corn out of the kettle onto a screen, where he sifts through the product with the spoon to let kernels that failed to pop sift out to a screen below. Soon it’s on to bagging up the kettle corn.

At the many area festivals they work, Joe also takes his turns waiting on customers.

“So many people with autism don’t want to look people in the eye, but you don’t see that so much in Joe,” Mrs. Steffy said.

Mr. Steffy said one of the joys he witnesses is watching Joe fill orders at convenience stores.

“Joe re-stocks the inventory, I fill out the invoice, and Joe signs it,” he said. “He gives it to them and they hand him the money. He walks back to the car three feet taller,” thinking “I’m a contributor to society.”

Selling to convenience and grocery stores, through a web site, and at festivals all across the area, Poppin’ Joe’s Kettle Corn has increased sales from $16,000 in 2005 -- the business’s first full year of operations -- to over $57,000 in 2009. Mr. Steffy said their goal is to top $100,000 in sales by 2012.

The Steffys say Joe uses some of the money he makes from the business to take skiing trips to Colorado, accompanied by a mentor.

“Joe has what he’s earned,” Ray Steffy said. “And his pride….the ‘I did it. Mom and dad didn’t do it for me. I did it.’”

When Joe Steffy became eligible for adult services through the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, his parents had to scramble. Joe could not receive these services, which include night support, in his parent’s home. But if he turned down the opportunity to receive adult services, his name would go to the bottom of the waiting list and not come up again for about five years, the Steffys were told.

The Steffy’s did not want Joe to have to move into a group home to get services; they had always fought against this possibility. Then they found they could establish an agency in Joe’s name to provide the needed services, and found a mobile home where he could live not far from their own rural Louisburg home.

“It’s a limited license agency,” said Mrs. Steffy. “It’s called Joe’s Landing.”

The Steffys say they mostly find people to provide personal assistance to their son through word of mouth, often finding students at local colleges. Mrs. Steffy said they prefer young male mentors because Joe models after others.

“We need the best model possible,” said Mrs. Steffy. “And he needs to be active. When he’s not active, he ends up with behavior problems or self-injury.”

Mrs. Steffy said they usually rely on their “gut feeling” about people willing to work with Joe and be a good model for him.

“Some people we brought on didn’t work out because their hearts were not in it,” she said.

Mrs. Steffy said one problem that parents with a child with disabilities face is becoming overly dependent on the systems in place that provide assistance.

Some of the assistance is within the education system.

“They forget to tell you that when your child turns 21, they’re no longer there,” she said.

But the Steffy’s concern about programs for young people with developmental disabilities runs deeper. They say most programs for this population begin with a prearranged program that doesn’t allow for differences and choices.

“It’s ‘here’s our program; it’s a box, and if you’re not in the program, you’re out,’” Mrs. Steffy said. “Joe needs to be given choices. Do you want to do this or that? His life is full of choices.”

In the last few years, Joe Steffy has been traveling. Besides appearances before Kansas legislative committees, he has appeared as a keynote speaker before major autism conferences in New York, Ohio, North Dakota and Nebraska. He has also been invited to speak at a conference in Arizona.

Mr. Steffy said he was taken aback when the first speaker fee for Joe arrived.

“It’s kind of been amazing,” Mrs. Steffy said.

The Steffys praise highly a Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities program called Partners in Policymaking for helping them learn how to advocate for their son and others with disabilities. They also received a grant from the Council years ago to help get Joe’s business started. But from the start, it’s been a learning experience for them all.

“When Joseph was born, Janet and I and the rest of the family had never experienced a person with disabilities,” said Ray Steffy. “All we did was try to learn from what we see around us.”

And the future for Joe? Ray Steffy said they plan to continue building the kettle corn business and eventually hire a manager.

“Joe will be the icon for the business,” he said. “Even now, he’s an icon.”

Mr. Steffy said that already, when they have to be at two festivals at once and Joe can only help work in one, people at the other festival ask where Joe is.

“People get a good feeling doing business with Joe,” he said.

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Annie at WorkThere’s always an option. Sometimes it just takes brainstorming to find it.

For Annie Anschutz, snakes became that option, and a willing museum room manager in Annie’s hometown of Hays made the option possible, along with a caring special education teacher.

Annie, 22, who has severe autism, is a regular “holder” of snakes in the Discovery Room of the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays.

With her sister Crystal, Annie regularly goes to the museum and lets various non-venomous snakes slide up and down her arms and, to her giggly delight during an early May visit, temporarily underneath her sweatshirt and up her arm.

Discovery Room Manager Thea Havgen said the snake holding Annie does as a museum volunteer serves a purpose. She said the snakes, including a Great Plains Rat Snake named Buddy and the Milk Snake that made its way up Annie’s arm, need to be handled because they need to get used to the groups of children that visit the Discovery Room regularly.

“Stress is trying on animals in captivity,” Mrs. Havgen said. “Annie helps them get used to stress. She likes to call it snake exercise time. She tells us she’s letting the snakes work their muscles.

“Sometimes she even holds the mice and some days, when I’m far behind, Annie helps me put dishes away,” said Mrs. Havgen.

The idea that Annie could become a snake holder at the museum originated during a brainstorming session when Annie’s mom and sister were involved in a Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities program called “Partners in Policymaking.” The program works to help people in the developmental disabilities community better advocate for people with developmental disabilities.

Annie’s mother, Evelina Moore, said the group was brainstorming possible work options for Annie and she had mentioned Annie’s love of bugs and snakes. They thought about trying to find a pet store that would be a job training possibility, but at the time there were no pet stores in Hays. Then they thought of the museum.

“Annie’s special education teacher kept calling the museum,” Mrs. Moore said. “She said she had a child who likes insects and snakes and Thea knew immediately it was Annie. She knew Annie because Annie had several classes at the Discovery Room.”

Special Education teacher Andrea Zody said she thought the possibility of Annie volunteering at the Sternberg was an excellent suggestion.

“We all knew how well Annie does with reptiles…with spiders and snakes,” Mrs. Zody said. “Annie prefers things to be calm. What she brings to reptiles, that’s what they need. It’s a good pairing.”

Mrs. Zody said she learned from Annie during her years with her as a student that some people use vision to communicate.

“Annie taught me valuable lessons,” she said. “She taught me to listen with my eyes, not always with my ears. Communication is paramount to her. Annie will not give up the idea or thought she wants to get across. And she has very cool things to share.”

While Mrs. Zody said Annie will probably not be able to communicate through typing on a computer, which she called very abstract, she does very well reacting to visual stimulus on that same computer. At school and at home, Annie uses a computer programmed with photographs and visual aides to communicate.

“She taught us that she is a very visual learner,” Mrs. Zody said.

Annie is well known in Hays.

Annie’s sister Crystal Anschutz, 26, currently is serving as Annie’s personal attendant. Crystal said she takes Annie to speech therapy a couple of times a week, to volunteer work at the museum, and on errands around town.

“Everywhere we go, we run into somebody who knows Annie, which is a good thing,” said Crystal. “Annie likes to go and see people.”

Crystal said she has put her college career on hold to work with Annie while their mother works and finishes the education classes she is taking. Crystal is paid part-time wages for the personal attendant work, although she works with Annie full-time. Crystal said she has always done respite work with Annie to give her mom a break.

Annie is on a waiting list for adult services through the state. She has been on the waiting list for adult services for years, her mother said. State budget shortfalls prevent much movement of people waiting for services to get those services.

With her family, Annie uses a mixture of sounds and special signs to communicate.

“Nobody understands it but us,” Crystal said of Annie’s sign language. “We call it ‘Anniesign.’”

At the museum, Mrs. Havgen said Annie regularly gets her picture taken with the snakes. That’s because school children on field trips to the museum often want a photograph of the snakes, but seldom want to hold the snake themselves. So Annie volunteers.

Mrs. Havgen said Annie was also instrumental in the recovery of a Bearded Dragon lizard they named Eddie. Eddie was in poor condition when he came to the museum, and Mrs. Havgen said Annie would spend a long time just holding him.

“She felt very sorry for Eddie,” Mrs. Havgen said. “Annie would just sit and hold him.

“Eventually, we found a home for Eddie,” Mrs. Havgen said.

Mrs. Zody said Annie is an example of what children with disabilities can bring to a job, whether in a paid position or as a volunteer.

“All of our students have something to bring to jobs,” she said. “They have something to contribute.”

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Transition Specialist KakCircle of Friends is just one of several programs that Washburn Rural Transition Specialist Kathryn “Kak” Eli-Schneider has been instrumental in developing during her 13 years in the position. She came to the district 15 years ago and began the transition program at the school.

Mrs. Schneider also started the school’s on-campus cookie shack where students with disabilities learn job skills by baking, decorating, and selling cookies.

The community work program is a major part of transition work done at Washburn Rural under Mrs. Schneider‘s leadership. It involves students with disabilities, many ages 18-21 with developmental disabilities, working at competitive jobs in businesses across Topeka, sometimes with a fellow student serving as job coach as they learn the work.

Mrs. Schneider spends part of her time working to find jobs for students with disabilities in her program, especially the 18-21 year old age group. And although the recent sour economy has made this tougher, she has had plenty of success.

“I have kids working all over the city,” she said. “Most kids in job placement are kids with developmental disabilities, with various degrees of disabilities. Some need job coaches, some do not.”

Mrs. Schneider says the goal of transition is to prepare students for life outside school. This is not something emphasized in the past.

“Special education kids used to be coddled through high school, and then they would graduate and it was ‘see you,’” she said. “Now we’re figuring out we need to find ways to help them with the rest of their lives.

“My goal is for kids to be working, not in something like a day service that is nothing but adult babysitting,” she said. “ I set up a meeting with businesses to talk about what the program is. But one thing we can’t do is displace another worker.”

Across Kansas, some school districts maintain a transition specialist, but many others rely solely on classroom teachers to run transition programs for children with disabilities. When this is the case, Mrs. Schneider said helping students with disabilities prepare for the world of employment may take a back seat.

“The teacher has to teach them math and English and make sure students get their medications,” she said. “They can’t specialize.”

Mrs. Schneider said some of the programs she oversees are not mandated by state or federal law.

“I don’t have to have the community-based work program,” she said. “I don’t have to have the in-school work program. A lot of things I do is because its best for kids.”

As a transition specialist, Mrs. Schneider said a main job is to make sure students and their families are connected to the linkages they need when they leave high school. Some of this work, for example, is making sure young men and women with disabilities who are going on to college get the accommodations set up that they need. But another important part of the job is making sure parents are aware of programs students will need when they leave the education system.

For example, students with severe disabilities are, in effect, receiving day program services from the school district during their school years, Mrs. Schneider said. But when they leave school, they will need similar services such as job coaching, day programs, and transportation help. Many of these services have waiting lists because of state budget shortfalls.

“And lots and lots of parents have not even applied to receive services,” Mrs. Schneider said.

To match a student with disabilities with a job, Mrs. Schneider works to find out the interest of the student. She does what she calls an ‘interest inventory,’ which involves working with the student to find out what kind of work they want to do.

Another main ingredient of the transition program is teaching students with disabilities to advocate for themselves. “Take up for yourself,” is a common theme Mrs. Schneider often repeats.

“These kids have choices,” she said. “We try to teach them they need to advocate for themselves.

“People I feel most at risk are the kids right in the middle,” she added. “They don’t look disabled, they don’t sound disabled. But they don’t have the skills to live. They leave here, get into tragic situations because they can’t advocate for themselves.”

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Photo of Justin“Circle of Friends” has been key to Justin White’s tremendous growth over the last couple of years.

At Washburn Rural High School southwest of Topeka, Circle of Friends involves students who have found a way to blur traditional lines between students with disabilities and other students. It pairs mentors, including top student athletes, with students with disabilities and has grown from an original 40 students two years ago to 175 student this year.

Friendships bloom in the group as they get together for games or do things as simple as getting together for lunch. At Washburn Rural, it’s no longer students with disabilities at an isolated lunch table in a corner of the cafeteria.

Justin, 21, is finishing up his last semester at Washburn Rural. Because of his developmental disabilities, including Intellectual Disability and Epilepsy, he has remained in school in the work study program past his normal graduating class. Under federal law, students with disabilities with unmet goals on their Individual Education Plan can continue education until age 21.

The progress Justin has made during these final school years has amazed his mother, Tonia Martin, and she points to the social connections he has made through Circle of Friends as a main reason. Justin is an original member of Circle of Friends and serves as co-president.

“A few years ago, if Justin had a problem, he had no one to go to but his teacher,” Ms. Martin said. “Now he has a million people he can go to.”

Washburn Rural Transition Specialist Kathryn “Kak” Eli-Schneider has also seen Justin’s progress since Circle of Friends began.

“It’s been awesome for him, he’s really grown,” she said.

Mrs. Martin said a few years ago, before natural supports grew for Justin through things like the Circle of Friends, he was not able to identify when people were making fun of him.

“We had a couple of times when kids talked him into doing stupid things,” she said.

Justin will compete this summer in the Special Olympics as a power weight lifter, which will take place in Nebraska. He said he can lift 265 pounds in a dead lift, 175 pounds in the squat, and bench-press 115 pounds. He said he’s been lifting weights “lots of years.”

But as his school year ends, Justin faces new challenges, new changes besides the weightlifting competition. With his school year finished, he’ll be in a new world, the world of employment and independence.

Through the community work program at Washburn Rural, Justin has been preparing for the transition. Presently, he works one day per week at Big Lots in Topeka unloading pallets, and also volunteers for several shifts at a Topeka Walgreens, gaining job experience.

Mrs. Martin said among her son’s strengths are his ability to remember how to do a job once he learns the routine. And, she said, he’s very willing to help others. Among weaknesses are an inability to understand the value of money. Plus, he just loves to talk and visit with others, so a job must be set up to discourage him from stopping work to spend time visiting.

Once he finishes high school, Justin will be beating the bushes for additional competitive employment. Because of recent budget cuts on the state level, Justin is on a waiting list for residential and day services, things that will be needed to meet his goal of living in his own apartment and working. If he finds work, Kansas Rehabilitation Services is expected to temporarily help with such things as transportation and job coach costs, but long-term assistance would be needed through other state programs.

Mrs. Schneider and Mrs. Martin said Justin will need 24-hour a day assistance once he leaves school.

“Right now, his day service is school,” Mrs. Schneider said. “When he leaves school, something has to take the place of school.”

Justin’s mom said her goal is that Justin has a good quality life. She is working to get him into a self-determination program, which will allow him to make his own choices about who provides his attendant care and where he lives.

“There is no reason Justin can’t be a productive citizen,” she said. “I don’t want him sitting around playing computer games all day or going to the zoo for the thousandth time.”

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Colin at Work

“I’m right in there with everybody else” could be said to be Colin Olenick’s life theme. “With a little bit of what I’d call ‘unorthodox help,’ I’ve been able to achieve much.”

Whether it’s working a job for seven years and counting, going to college to advance his career, or, earlier in his life, attending the public schools of his choice, Mr. Olenick has been right in there with everyone else. Even in high school at Shawnee Mission South, he didn’t let cerebral palsy or autism hold him back.

On the high school swim team, he jokes, “I was the guy with the life preserver.”

Such joke lines are not unusual for Mr. Olenick, 25. At the job at Cinemark Theater in Overland Park, where he is a ticket-taker but tells friends he works “in show business,“ one of Colin’s bosses calls him “our resident comedian.”

Although Mr. Olenick jokes about his participation on the swim team, the swim team participation really wasn’t a joke. He is in fact a good swimmer, despite the cerebral palsy which forces him to use a wheelchair to get around.

“Basically, the life preserver was just to save them liability,” Mr. Olenick said. “I was on the swim team from my sophomore to senior year. I competed against able-bodied guys in free style. I had a wonderful coach.”

Colin’s mother, Jo Lynn Smith, said it may sound odd to say it, but Colin is the most athletic of her three children. Her other two children do not have developmental disabilities.
“He liked to swim and was a good swimmer,” she said. “They adjusted the length of the swim, and he did really well.”

Then Mrs. Smith, in talking about Colin’s swimming, herself used her son’s favorite line: “He was very competitive. He did it like everybody else.”

At the theatre, where Mr. Olenick has been a ticket-taker since starting the job with a job coach while in high school, co-workers say he is popular with staff and customers. Fellow ticket-taker Sandra Anderson said when she’s taking tickets and Colin is off duty, moviegoers often ask about him.

“Colin amazes me,” Ms. Anderson said. “He’s an intelligent, nice young man. And he likes to hug too.”

Mr. Olenick said he enjoys the job at Cinemark.

“They treat me like every other employee, not some special case,” he said. “I am one of the few who actually likes the job.”

In grade school and high school, Mr. Olenick and his parents worked hard to keep him in the mainstream and not be treated like some special case. But it was often a battle.

Colin remembers his mother pulling him in the wheelchair up stairs to get him to school. His mother remembered it too.

“The school was not accessible,” she said.

Then there was high school. The school district tried to convince his parents to send him to the school where all children with disabilities were sent. Colin and his parents refused, considering the school he ended up attending was just a short distance from their home and it was the school friends were attending.

“They had one school for kids with disabilities,” remembered Mrs. Smith. “But why should he have to go there?”

Mrs. Smith said schools were difficult because many things were not accessible for her son’s wheelchair. She said she constantly had to go to the school to help find ways for Colin to be part of normal school activities.

“I used to joke that I should have had my own office at school because I was up there all the time,” she said.

She said the school eventually remodeled to accommodate Colin.

“But of course we had to ask,” she said. “We raised a lot of people’s awareness.”

Mr. Olenick’s education goal at Johnson County Community College is to become a paralegal and work in the disability rights area. He gets help in getting to classes and getting around campus from Anton, who works for Colin’s day and residential service provider, L’Arche USA.

“I know it isn’t high school,” he said. “They are not required to give the same amount of support as elementary and secondary schools. But I’m in there with everybody else. I talk to the teachers and the teachers are comfortable with Anton being there.”

No matter how long it takes, Mr. Olenick said he will stick with the goal to finish college and become a paralegal.

“It’s easier than becoming a lawyer,” he joked. “And I like research.”

Mr. Olenick is already active in disability rights. He has taken several trips to Washington D.C. to advocate for people with disabilities, including a recent trip to advocate for the Community Choice Act aimed at increasing choices for people with disabilities to live in the community and not in nursing facilities.

Mr. Olenick himself was on a waiting list for state services for three years before getting those services.

“It was 2007 before my name came up,” he said. “Before that, I stayed home with my cat and cooked microwave pizza.”.

Without day services, Mr. Olenick said life can be difficult for people with developmental disabilities. He was getting residential services, but had no ability to be out in the community.

“I love L’Arche to death, but all I was doing was sitting around playing video games,” Mr. Olenick said. “That’s all a lot of people do.”

“Tell providers and SRS (the state agency) that people want to work in the community,” he added, “not to put them in sheltered workshops where they play video games all day. Help them get into really competitive jobs in the community. Sheltered workshops are buildings in the community, but not really employment. You could just sit there and they couldn’t fire you. There’s no challenge.”

Rita Patience, Mr. Olenick’s case manager, said he is an excellent advocate for persons with disabilities. She also said he’s a joy to work with, especially because of his humor. She pointed to a recent conversation they had about a bill before the legislature that would have increased funding to people with disabilities through an increase in taxes on alcohol.

“He said ‘hey, if that involves us having to drink more, I‘d be happy to,’” Ms. Patience said.

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Allison at WorkAllison Loveland gets a kick out of the fact the hospital where she works is also where she was born.

“I was born here in 1978,” Ms. Loveland says as she makes her way down the fourth floor hallway of Wesley Hospital in Wichita, dusting the walls high and low as she goes. “I was born in the old part of the hospital.”

Ms. Loveland, 32, is actually employed by Aramark Healthcare, which contracts with the hospital to provide environmental services. Ms. Loveland, who has Down’s Syndrome, has worked at the hospital three years, working three days a week, four hours a day.

“I love part-time,” Ms. Loveland said.

It was through Kansas Elks Training Center for the Handicapped (KETCH) that Ms. Loveland received help obtaining the job with Aramark. Ms. Loveland originally worked with KETCH job coach Patty Waters at the hospital learning the job, and Mrs. Waters still comes by occasionally to see how Ms. Loveland is doing.

Esther Lazos, assistant manager for Aramark, said Ms. Loveland has done a very good job at the hospital.

“She has a great attitude,” Mrs. Lazos said.

But it is Ms. Loveland’s co-workers in the break room that really give an idea of the type of worker Ms. Loveland is. “She’s a sweetie,” said co-worker Linda McWilliams. Another Aramark worker Debbie McNeill said Ms. Loveland “does a really good job. She’ll always ask you if you need help. She works hard.”

The cleaning job at the hospital is one of several jobs Ms. Loveland has held since graduating from Chisholm Life Skills High School in Wichita in 1998 at age 21. Under federal law, students with disabilities can remain in school past their graduating class if goals on their Individual Employment Plan (IEP) remain. Allison’s mother, Karen Loveland, said Allison has worked in a day care, a flower shop, a nursing home, and fast food restaurants.

Mrs. Loveland also said she and her daughter are active with the Jehovah’s Witness Church.

“Spiritual life is very important to me,” Ms. Loveland said. “I go to field service; I go out and talk to people about God’s Kingdom. I do love to talk to people about God’s Kingdom.”

Allison’s mother said her daughter has displayed an independent streak. Mrs. Loveland said when a cousin around Allison’s age got her driver’s license, Allison was determined to do the same.

“It took her three years to do it, but she got her license,” Mrs. Loveland said. “She passed with 98 percent.”

Mrs. Loveland said her daughter drives very little now; she takes the bus to and from work.

Ms. Loveland also took a trip to Canada by herself to visit a sister, her mother said.

Asked whether working at a hospital among people who are sick ever bothered her, Ms. Loveland had a quick answer. It was based on her religious beliefs.

“I had some fear at first, but now the way I start each day is I know I can conquer each day,” she said. “I know people are good at heart.”

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Photo of DavidIn his senior year in high school, then 19-year-old David Vinsonhaler was in a difficult spot.

Living alone in the very small town of Macksville outside Pratt with no family, no transportation, and no job income, he said he was so troubled he even attempted suicide.

“I had little or no direction in my life,” he said. “I had no faith in what I could do. I was moody, emotional…I’m diagnosed with manic depression. My teachers had to put up with quite a lot.”

But help from a high school teacher and then from a series of assistance agencies has David on track. Now 21, he works full-time as a medication aide in a senior center, has his own apartment, car, and computer, and plans to gain additional education to continue a career in health care. He even has a very active kitten scampering through the rooms of his apartment.

Help for David -- who is diagnosed with a developmental disability -- came first from his resource teacher at Macksville High School. Patty Sanders said she recognized David had a home environment that did not provide a lot of support. She also said she recognized he had lots of potential.

When his family decided to move before he could complete high school, David said he didn’t want to leave with them and wanted to finish high school in Macksville.

“We started looking at what options there were,” Mrs. Sanders said.

Those options, which included finding David a subsidized apartment, recruiting a church ladies group in Macksville to provide food and finding other town members to donate furniture and transportation, eventually paid dividends.

Today, as David walks down the hallways of Lakewood Senior Living in Pratt where he works, residents and nurses perk up as he greets everyone by name. With assistance first from Prairie Independent Living Resource Center and then from Kansas Rehabilitation Services, David earned a certificate as a nurse’s aide and got the job at a senior center. Then he went back to school on his own to become a Certified Medication Aide, increasing his job responsibilities and income.

David was also set up with counseling with the Special Education Cooperative in Pratt, which he said helped him work through some personal issues. The therapy was done through the Kansas University Telemedicine program, where David talked to a therapist on television via a computer hook-up.

“David is pretty flexible and does lots of things for us,” said Robin Saffle, the executive director of Lakewood Senior Living. “There are lots of areas we use his skills. We appreciate him.”

Billy Thompson, an Independent Living Specialist with the resource center in Pratt, said Mrs. Sanders got the ball rolling getting David on the right track by contacting his agency after David‘s breakdown and suicide attempt. Mr. Thompson still works with David as David prepares for additional college education.

“She did the right thing by getting him to us, then we contacted Rehabilitation Services,” Mr. Thompson said. “I helped him with independent living skills, and Rehabilitation Services helped with transportation and school costs.”

Mr. Thompson also said it was David’s determination to succeed which brought about his success.

Mrs. Sanders said it was after David’s suicide attempt -- which she thinks came about because of loneliness -- and his week-long stay at Larned State Hospital that he seemed to find his career.

“He came back and told me about all the people he talked to at the hospital,” she said. “It seemed like he knew the right thing to say to those people. I told David he‘d be good with older people; he’d be good at helping other people, helping to heal others.”

David now says he wants to take his work in health care further.

“Health care is kind of a family thing,” he said. “My great grandmother was a nurse, and her father was a doctor. I have a grandmother who was a nurse and my mom worked in a nursing home.”

In a year or so, he plans to move to Hays and attend Fort Hays University, where he wants to study radiology. Until then, he’ll continue with his job at the senior center and take additional classes at Pratt Community College where he earned his nurse’s aide certificates. He said his job at the senior center includes giving pills to residents, taking vital signs, checking blood-sugar levels, and many other duties.

“I try to be as helpful as I can,” he said.

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Angela WorkingThe first group of calves was named after candy, like "Dark Chocolate." Then country music held sway, thus the twin calves "Tex" and "Ritter."

Angela Klaassen gives each of the calves in the pens on her parents' "Swinging K" farm just outside Hillsboro a name and that name goes on an ear tag. Since the spring of 2008, she has raised over 50 calves, feeding them from three days old until they reach 400 to 600 pounds months later and go to the sale barn. During the first five weeks, she feeds the calves milk replacement she mixes into bottles, then gradually the calves move off of the milk and are given cattle feed.

Angela, now 21, feeds the Brown Swiss and Holstein calves twice a day, in rain, snow, ice or mud. She also feeds the other farm animals, including horses, a donkey, goats, dogs, and barn cats.

One of the ramifications of Angela Klaassen’s diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome, a high spectrum form of Autism, and a seizure disorder, includes her dislike of large groups of people in enclosed spaces. Combine that with her strong love of animals and the outdoors resulted in the business idea.

Angela’s mother, Janell Klaassen, said it was during Angela’s Individual Education Plan sessions when Angela was still at Hillsboro High School that they decided to contact a social worker to help devise an employment plan. It was during many discussions about Angela’s future employment possibilities that they came up with the idea of raising calves. They applied for and won a grant from the Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities for start-up costs such as fencing and pens for the calves.

Kristi Berning, a social worker with Total Success Services in Newton, was involved with the Klaassens in setting up the project. She said it came about because it fit what Angela liked to do.

“She loves to be outside and really likes working with animals,” Ms. Berning said. “She’s devoted to it. She just needs a little coaching sometimes to stay on track.”

Angela’s mother echoed this assessment. She said Angela needs reminding at times concerning the right milk replacement mix, but that she stays on the job, sometimes taking her boom box outside to hang around with the calves and horses.

“She has some kind of bond with animals,” said Mrs. Klaassen. “She talks to them every day. Especially the horses. She has to have a kiss from them every day. And it’s the same with the calves. She lowers herself to their level. It’s something she has a knack for.”

According to her father Milford, Angela had to learn how to deal safely with the calves, especially as the calves grew. He pointed out that calves tend to push against you to get at the milk, just like they would a mother cow to get milk.

“She got some pretty good bruises,” he said.

Mr. Klaassen, who runs a mowing business and drives a school bus, said he oversees the work with the calves, but Angela does a lot of the work. They worked together to put up the pens and fencing.

“We do a lot of it together,” he said. “This winter…it was a tough winter and sometimes it was hard to go out.”

But he said Angela kept at it.

“I’m really proud of her,” he said.

Mr. Klaassen said the business pays for itself, but so far has not been a big moneymaker. Profits depend largely on the sale price for the calves, both after they are fattened up and when they are first purchased.

Mr. Klaassen joked that the only trouble he’s had with Angela is when he told her to go do some chores with the calves.

“She said ‘No dad, you do it. I’m the owner.’”



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