HARAHAN — At Elmwood Fitness Center in Harahan, Andrew Bourgeois buffs the floors, cleans exercise machines and folds towels. An employee just like the rest, he clocks in and out each day and receives a regular paycheck and benefits.
Bourgeois has been at Elmwood for about a year. But Bourgeois is autistic, and without the collaboration of the business community, Jefferson Parish Human Services Authority and independent organizations devoted to helping people with special needs find jobs, entering the workforce soon after leaving high school likely would not have happened for the 20-year-old.
Up until the age of 21, students with special needs are provided a support system within their schools. But once they graduate, they are at risk of sitting at home and doing nothing.
Nicole Green, the JPHSA division director for developmental disabilities, said that when not connected to the outside world, people become at risk for depression, loneliness and a decreased quality of life. Being valued by the community is something everyone seeks, whether they have a disability or not, Green said.
Eva Belcas, executive director of Access to Meaningful Employment, said Bourgoies is “very bright,” but came to the program lacking skills needed for communicating and interacting with other people. While Bourgeois talks, Ronnie Strassel, who is the environmental services director at Elmwood, reminds Bourgoies to keep his head up and make eye contact.
Amanda Root, 23, works at Elmwood five days a week. She has an intellectual disability and works in the kids sports area, helping to clean the toys, as well as cleaning tables in the café, setting up for special events and folding towels in the laundry room.
Belcas said Root, who is quiet with a sweet smile, is doing very well and was a good candidate for a paid job. Root is still in the training stage and has been at Elmwood for about three months.
AcME partners with JPHSA, Elmwood (a service of the Ochsner Health System), and Magnolia School, a nonprofit based in Jefferson that provides support and services to people older than 18 who have intellectual or other developmental disabilities.
For Bourgeois and Root, the “supported employment” component provided by Magnolia School can provide assistance at work including job coaches, transportation, assistive technology, specialized job training and individually tailored supervision. It also allows them to transition into paid employment at their own pace.
At Elmwood, people like Bourgeois and Root are given the first jobs in their lives and learn important basic skills, like organizational tasks, clocking in and out, working as a team, meeting set standards and completing individual tasks, Belcas said.
“If they weren’t doing this, they wouldn’t be doing anything,” Belcas said. “This model isn’t done other places,” she said, referring to moving people like Bourgeois and Root toward paid employment. It wouldn’t be possible if businesses like Elmwood had not stepped up and allowed their facilities to be used as a training ground, she said.
Belcas said AcME has partnered with Ochsner for 18 years and described one Elmwood employee with an intellectual disability — beloved by the staff and clients — who has worked there for about 16 years.
Angela Henry, JPHSA director of child and adolescent services, works with providing similar resources to young people with mental health needs or substance abuse issues. At interagency meetings, she works with Green as well as social workers at schools. Connecting people to available services and opportunities can make the difference between some individuals becoming institutionalized or facing chronic hospitalization, Henry said.
“You never know what capabilities they have,” Green said.
Even if paid employment is not the best fit, depending on the severity of the disability, people can find a role in the community volunteering or doing anything that provides structure and social interaction. And it can make a huge impact on that person’s life and future, Green said.
“Every person needs something to feel good about and to feel needed,” Henry said.
While employers can receive tax benefits, Green said they also often find that individuals with disabilities are hardworking and loyal — “some of the best workers you can get,” she said.
Belcas said Bourgeois and Root never miss a day of work. In her organization, Belcas said that of the 95 people with paid jobs, more than 40 percent held their jobs for five years, and more than 30 percent held their jobs for 10 years.
A key to success, Green and Strassel said, is assessing the individual’s capabilities, skills, strengths and interests and matching them to a job that fits. Self-sufficiency is an ultimate goal for those who are able to follow the path to paid employment, Belcas said. The pay check is undoubtedly a confidence booster, but it also decreases the burden on their families and taxpayer provided services.
Bourgeois just started taking classes at Delgado Community College. Belcas said he had taken some online classes, but with the new skills he built at Elmwood in terms of interacting socially, she said his parents are “beyond elated,” and attribute his progress as a college student — and as a person — to his work experience.
In terms of state resources, people with developmental disabilities are eligible for a Medicaid-funded Home and Community Based Waiver Service, Green said. The waivers provide different levels of support, some for life, including in-home care and companion services, vocational training and supported employment and specialized devices or medical equipment.
The goal is to “support them to remain in their home and community achieving the greatest possible independence, community participation, self determination, and productivity ... while at the same time having their health and safety needs met,” according to the JPHSA.
But with budget cuts across health care, the waiver system has been frozen for this fiscal year and is not accepting new applicants, Green said. The waiting list is currently at eight years.
Identifying potential disorders or disabilities very early — even before children turns three — can help by connecting kids to resources early, something that both Green and Henry said can make all the difference.
Belcas pointed out that with investment in training programs like that at Elmwood, opportunities are provided for people to become taxpayers themselves and reduce their need for social services.
With 25 participating employers in Jefferson, Orleans and St. Tammany parishes, Belcas and said there is still a need for more employers to step up. Elmwood employs nine people with disabilities, with about another eight who are training.
Belcas said it would not be possible without a director like Strassel, who can “see people for their abilities.”
And Belcas can attest that their model is working. Over the years, she said she has witnessed a very high success rate.
“Everyone is skilled,” Strassel said. “Everyone has skills that others don’t have. And everyone was put on this earth for a purpose.”