4 local nonprofits that help people with disabilities find jobs

Tony Guerrero operates a forklift at Firestone Walker Brewing Co. in Paso Robles. He found full-time employment at the brewery through NCI Affiliates.
Tony Guerrero operates a forklift at Firestone Walker Brewing Co. in Paso Robles. He found full-time employment at the brewery through NCI Affiliates.

As a child, Tony Guerrero was diagnosed with a mild intellectual disability. He lived in multiple foster homes from the time he was 7 until he aged out of the system at 18.

With no known family and few job skills, Guerrero turned to NCI Affiliates and was soon earning a paycheck on a crew contracted to clean rest areas for Caltrans. Other jobs ensued: janitorial work at the Hearst Castle Visitor Center, shuttle driving for Paso Robles Ford, food preparation and cashiering at a Camp Roberts cafe.

Today, Guerrero is 36, living independently in Paso Robles, and employed full time with benefits at Firestone Walker Brewing Co., where he does everything from packaging to operating a forklift.

Nonprofit agencies such as NCI help individuals with disabilities learn work skills, earn a paycheck and contribute to their communities. Traci Hollinger, NCI/Achievement House’s director of Work Activity Programs, said without the nonprofit’s services, many people would be homeless or “pretty much locked away, not part of the community, not able to grow as a person.”

Many programs take a multi-tiered approach, which accommodates a wide range of abilities. Individuals typically start in supervised group employment before moving on to individual job placement, usually with the assistance of a job coach.

Workers are typically referred through agencies such as the Tri-Counties Regional Center and the California Department of Rehabilitation, which also provide funding.

Justin McIntire, Department of Rehabilitation employment coordinator, works regularly with the four agencies profiled here, and he assists companies that hire people with disabilities. During the 2012-13 fiscal year, the Department of Rehabilitation in San Luis Obispo County referred 237 people for vocational services and job searches that “run the workforce gamut, ranging from entry-level jobs to jobs requiring advanced degrees,” he said.

“Employers that hire people with disabilities report increased employee retention, improved productivity and marketing opportunities,” McIntire said. “Federal tax incentives are also available to those employers that rise to the challenge, shift paradigms and provide opportunity to people with disabilities.”

Here’s a closer look at four programs.

NCI Affiliates/Achievement House Vocational Services

Service area: San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Monterey counties: NCI serves northern San Luis Obispo County and Monterey County; Achievement House serves southern San Luis Obispo County and Santa Barbara County

Population served: Adults with developmental disabilities

Number served annually: About 310 in San Luis Obispo County

Traci Hollinger, director of Work Activity Programs at NCI/Achievement House, believes the value of earning a paycheck cannot be underestimated.

At the nonprofit agency, which provides vocational and community living services to adults with developmental disabilities, many participants are able to do to just that — work for pay, and some for the first time.

“Right away, it gives them the ability to be more independent,” she said.

Most Vocational Services employees begin in Work Services, which is located in both San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles. Here, even individuals with severe challenges can accomplish simple tasks such as collating, sorting bulk mail, stuffing envelopes or filling utensil packs for paying clients.

This is where they learn “proper work behavior,” Hollinger said.

Group Supported Employment is where workers “learn how to be out in the community, interacting with others,” she said. These individuals do janitorial work for the Adelaide Inn in Paso Robles and CHP offices. They also work in a variety of capacities at NCI-owned businesses, including the Runway Express snack bar at the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport, the 11th Hole Grill at Laguna Lake Golf Course, the Orange Dog Café in Atascadero, and the agency’s four thrift stores throughout the county.

The ideal final step is Individual Job Placement. Once hired, an NCI/ Achievement House job coach, who is on-site 100 percent of the time at the start, aids employees. Support is reduced to 20 percent or less over time.

Last year, 24 individuals were placed in jobs within the county, including positions at Firestone Walker Brewing Co., Albertsons, Chili’s, Farm Supply Co., Wal-Mart and Target.

Another large component of the program’s success is the Supported and Independent Living Program, which helps those living independently with a host of life skills, including finance management, personal hygiene and home maintenance.

OPTIONS Vocational Services

Service area: Paso Robles to Lompoc

Populations served: Individuals with developmental disabilities, head injuries, hearing loss, autism and other impairments

Number served annually: About 75

In the early 1980s, Mike Mamot was a special education teacher in Paso Robles when he saw families struggling with the challenges of caring for special needs children. He opened a small group home, which has expanded into an array of services under the auspices of Morro Bay-based nonprofit OPTIONS.

One of those services is vocational training. The nonprofit agency offers group and individual placement services for individuals with developmental disabilities.

In group placement, people perform jobs such as maintenance at the Hearst Castle Visitor Center and San Simeon State Park and campground. The agency also operates a parcel service in Paso Robles where individuals learn a variety of skills including working at a register, packaging items and checking invoices.

The agency helps people with other disabilities, including those coping with blindness, deafness, back injury or mental health concerns. These individuals receive short-term support with tasks such as resume writing, job search and interview skills.

“Many have been looking on their own and just need help pushing through some wall they’re hitting for one reason or another,” explained program director Christina Hutchison.

On average, OPTIONS places 30 to 40 individuals in jobs each year. Among the employers it frequently works with are Target, K&S Services for janitorial work, and local grocery stores.

The agency’s clients have wide-ranging backgrounds and skills, so services are very individualized; staff has placed candidates in jobs ranging from grocery bagger to prison chaplain.

“We spend the time getting to know the person — their skills, deficits, challenges. It’s an important thing to know we are providing employers with workers who are qualified and a good match for the job,” Hutchison said.

PathPoint Employment Services

Service area: San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles and Kern counties

Populations served: People facing barriers to employment, either because of a disability or other disadvantage

Number served annually: 162 in San Luis Obispo County

Founded in 1964, Santa Barbara-based PathPoint offers a range of services for individuals facing challenges. In San Luis Obispo County, 92 percent have a developmental disability, and many are dually diagnosed with other developmental, physical or psychiatric challenges.

Although PathPoint offers traditional classroom training for skills such as communication, safety, teamwork and good citizenship, it emphasizes on-the-job training.

“Many people have trouble generalizing and retaining skills, especially if we aren’t given immediate opportunities to put them into practice,” said Aline Graham, vice president/director.

For those with developmental disabilities, PathPoint offers group employment with jobs such as cleaning San Luis Obispo bus stops and working at Trader Joe’s. The next step, individual supported employment, involves job placement and ongoing support.

PathPoint provides short-term job search and placement services for those with disabilities referred through the state Department of Rehabilitation, as well as for those receiving disability insurance, through the Ticket to Work program.

A unique component of PathPoint is its Senior Community Service & Employment Program, which helps low-income individuals older than 55 re-enter the workforce through paid training and work experience. This program is funded through the U.S. Department of Labor.

On average, one to two people a year move on from integrated work training to job placement. Overall, the agency assisted 33 people in obtaining jobs in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2013.

Like many nonprofits, tighter public funding has forced PathPoint to “become more dependent on fundraising than ever,” said Graham, who noted that reimbursement rates cover only about 75 percent of their costs.

Still, the demand for services continues to rise.

“The increase in people with autism is having a dramatic impact on services,” noted Graham, who added that the agency is prepared to change and adapt to continue to meet “the needs and wishes of the people we serve.”

Transitions-Mental Health Association Growing Grounds and Supported Employment Program

Service area: San Luis Obispo County, Santa Maria and Lompoc

Population served: Individuals with mental illness

Number served annually: 64 at Growing Grounds Nursery in San Luis Obispo, 15 at Growing Grounds Downtown, about 200 in the Supported Employment Program

In 1982, staff members of San Luis Obispo-based Transitions-Mental Health Association (then Mental Health Association) bought a lawnmower and truck and started a landscape maintenance business to help those coping with mental illness acquire the skills needed to find work.

This small enterprise eventually led to Growing Grounds, which now has three locations: farms in San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria, and a retail location in downtown San Luis Obispo. Vocational training is one of several services the organization provides to individuals with mental illness.

The San Luis Obispo farm is a wholesale nursery, growing and propagating Mediterranean climate zone perennials, which it sells to retail nurseries, landscapers, and environmental restoration and mitigation organizations. It recently branched out into the collection and banking of native seeds. The Santa Maria farm sells cut flowers and vegetables, which are sold from its farm stand.

Most clients are referred to the program from the state Department of Rehabilitation and San Luis Obispo County Behavioral Health.

In the 2012-13 fiscal year, the San Luis Obispo farm grossed more than $260,000, and Growing Grounds Downtown, a San Luis Obispo retail outlet for the farm, grossed $60,000, most of which goes directly back into the program, providing clients with gainful employment.

The agency also offers a Supported Employment program. This may start with retail training and work at Growing Grounds Downtown. Others take a position with one of TMHA’s employer partners such as Goodwill, Miner’s Ace Hardware, Ernie Ball and the Bartfield Family Hotel Group. About 25 percent of Supported Employment clients will be competitively employed each year.

Training the employee is only half of the equation. The organization also offers employer services, including training to promote mental wellness in the workplace.

Deanna Strachan, Supported Employment program manager, said fostering mental wellness is key to a productive workplace — and the reverse is also true.

“Studies show that working — having that routine, structure and social support around us — actually protects our mental wellness,” she said.