Megan Sullivan was 9 when a brain tumor was found on her pituitary gland.

After nine months in the hospital and 10 brain surgeries to remove it, the 22-year-old still suffers from occasional seizures.

Through the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (DARS), Ms. Sullivan recently completed an eight-week job training program at Office Depot in Tyler and began her first official day of work there as a cashier on Tuesday.

"All I can say is it was awesome," Ms. Sullivan said of the program. "Everybody supported me every step of the way. It's like I had my own little cheerleaders."

Two Tyler businesses — Office Depot and Hilton Garden Inn — received the Business of the Year Award from DARS for hiring workers with disabilities. The businesses not only employ people with disabilities, but also lend their facilities to be training grounds for a program put on through DARS and Goodwill Industries.

Crystal Nicholson, 37, lead job coach with Goodwill, said Office Depot and Hilton Garden Inn have been amazing in offering their businesses to the program. Goodwill is contracted through DARS to train the people, whom Goodwill pays through the training program. Afterward, Office Depot and Hilton Garden Inn have the opportunity to hire or not hire them, she said.

Juanita Barker, director of program management for Austin-based DARS, said the program is all about offering employment to people who are vision impaired or blind. But through the state agency's work with Goodwill, the Texas Workforce Commission and others, they serve people with all kinds of disabilities.

On Tuesday, Ms. Barker presented the awards to Hilton Garden Inn and Office Depot because they provide an opportunity for training a lot of people who might not have much work history but who have the willingness and desire to work and need to be given the opportunity, she said, adding that one in 10 people in the United States have a disability. DARS honored about 25 businesses across the state.

 

JOB TRAINING

Through the job training program, Ms. Sullivan learned several skills but working the cash register is what she likes best, she said.

Mark Stonebreaker, Office Depot's Tyler store manager, said when Ms. Sullivan came into the program, she was shy and withdrawn but has built her confidence up and is now doing a great job as cashier.

"Some don't talk, don't communicate," he said of the people who go through the program. "We allow them to really open up and give ownership to their areas."

Stonebreaker, 46, said DARS approached the company two years ago about working with Goodwill to offer the training program.

"I jumped on it," he said.

Stonebreaker had learning disabilities when he was young but was able to grow out of them, he said. Between ages 4 and 9, he had hearing issues, was slow in school and was held back a few years, he said.

Stonebreaker believes everyone should have the opportunity to support themselves to feel worth and ownership. He said about a dozen people have gone through the training program, and Office Depot has hired five. The store now has two of those employees, while others moved on to other jobs. At the end of the program, they offer them a job or help them find employment somewhere else, he said.

Stonebreaker believes businesses should do more to give people with disabilities opportunities.

"We can't hire everybody but believe me, if there's a spot, we'll give them the opportunity …" he said.

Hilton Garden Inn began offering the training program more than two years ago.

General Manager Cheyenne Whorton said through the program, Goodwill trains them to ensure they are capable employees. Hilton Garden Inn looks at their performance as they do with any other workers. They have four employees that have gone through the program.

"This program puts out great performers on a daily basis," he said.

 

DETERMINED TO WORK

Thomas Draemer, 40, grew up in Houston and suffered a brain injury when he was 16. A portion of his brain is missing, leaving him with mental and physical disabilities. He said until he was 34, he was on the streets, getting into trouble, and he landed in jail. It was then that he realized he wanted to get his life straight, he said. Draemer moved to Tyler and found DARS, which sent him through the program.

"It gave me the confidence every day to wake up," he said, adding that it also gave him the opportunity to associate with different people, become a little smarter and wiser and better his communication skills.

"I really wanted to be a janitor," he said.

After completing the training, Hilton Garden Inn hired him, and for two years, he has been working part-time, cleaning the restrooms and lobby, taking out garbage and doing whatever is needed.

"I'm so happy what it's done for me," he said. "I love this job."

Draemer believes he would be lost if he hadn't gone through the program. He had searched for work for about two years before he started at the Hilton Garden Inn.

"I was determined to get a job," he said.

Draemer also has been working part time as a janitor at Anytime Fitness for nearly two years. He said they hired him after he showed them he had graduated from the Goodwill training program.

Ms. Nicholson was studying criminal justice when she started working as a job coach for Goodwill. It was hearing Draemer's testimonial after graduating from the program that made her want to change careers and stick with the job, which she said she finds gratifying.

"There's no place else I'd rather be," she said.

 

INDEPENDENT

Rodney Ervin, 41, grew up in Whitehouse and was active in sports. In 1995, he was diagnosed with diabetes. A couple of years later, he was playing basketball and began to miss shots he would normally make.

Concerned about his vision, he went to see a doctor. Since then, he has had several eye surgeries and developed diabetic retinopathy, which is a buildup of scar tissue that causes bleeding in the eyes and vision impairment.

Ervin had worked in an automotive shop and fast-food restaurants, but since becoming visually impaired, he hadn't worked. He filed for disability and said his family was "on our last leg" when he learned about DARS and qualified for its services.

The "training teaches you how to be independent in spite of your disability," he said. He went through the training program at the Hilton Garden Inn and was hired there March 4. Ervin works part time, stripping the linens from beds to help housekeeping prepare the rooms for guests.

"It's wonderful to be employed, especially with the way the job market is out there. It's hard to find a job. … These guys presented me with a wonderful opportunity," Ervin said.

Tom Norman, 63, worked as an insurance claims adjuster for 33 years before he began having vision problems that caused him to retire at 56. Now legally blind, he said, after five years of retirement, he wanted to go back to work. Norman began working with DARS and went through the training program at Office Depot.

"It's provided me with the opportunity for this job I'm in now," Norman said. Since March, he has worked part time as a sales associate. When asked what he likes best about the job, he said working with the other employees.

"Everything is teamwork here. Everybody helps everybody," he said.

Ms. Nicholson said they had to overcome several obstacles Norman faced throughout the program, such as working the cash register. Stonebreaker worked with them through it all and realized Norman had a lot more skills than running a register and hired him to do other things, she said.

Ms. Barker said businesses often automatically think about what a person won't be able to do because of their impairment, but most times, simple accommodations can be made at no cost. There is a lot of assistive technology that helps businesses employ people with disabilities. If making accommodations does cost money the businesses don't have, DARS will help, she said.

 
 

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