Workers return support to city, county

Program provides jobs for developmentally disabled residents

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Her position may be classified as a "supported employee," but Mindy Irwin's bosses and coworkers at the city of Vancouver know that it's really the other way around.

Irwin, 39, is one of four employees at the city with developmental disabilities who, without a little help, wouldn't be able to hold down a normal 9 to 5 job. The work lets Irwin earn a paycheck, be independent and be free of reliance on most government programs.

In return, things at the Marshall and Luepke senior centers run like clockwork. She works half-time for parks and recreation, doing everything from setting up and taking down for events, washing city vehicles, vacuuming and spot oversight of fitness and other areas.

"I just kind of keep busy all around," said Irwin, who wears her hair short and favors multiple colored bracelets on each arm. She's a lifelong Vancouver resident — an Evergreen High grad whose parents both also worked for the city.

In return, Irwin's presence makes everyone's day go smoothly.

"She's a vital member of the team," said Andy Meade, director of the Marshall Center.

Irwin is also one of hundreds of participants in the Clark County Disabilities Program, which helps train, counsel and ultimately place workers in public and private sector jobs. The county program has more than 430 developmentally disabled clients at the moment, Director Mary Strehlow said Friday. About 170 are currently in local jobs, and most have a job coach to help them along.

"It's a way out of poverty. It's a way to be citizens," Strehlow said. "Work has the same meaning for people with significant disabilities as for the rest of us: it structures our day, gives us income, helps us find our friends."

The work has come a long way since the program got going in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Clark County became the second county in the nation to bring in supported employees. Strehlow said before then, disabled workers were often given menial tasks and paid an average of $5 a month.

Now, the supported employee program is catching on. The Seattle City Council approved 50 new such positions on Aug. 16. The city of Vancouver, which has had as many as nine developmentally disabled workers, has lost several due to attrition, but hopes to add at least one more in 2013. (Strehlow pointed out that in Clark County -- in both the public and private sectors -- supported employees lost jobs, at no greater rate than the general population). Clark County also has four supported employees.

Another supported employee could really excel at Vancouver City Hall, said Tami Janecki, a workforce specialist in the city's Human Resources Department.

"There's a strong business case that for an organization to run well, it needs to represent a diverse community," Janecki said. "And they're doing work to make sure others can do their job more efficiently."

And Irwin has come so far in her 12 years with the city that she no longer needs a job coach. She memorizes her tasks or takes initiative, greeting most everyone with a smile. She's known for her outgoing personality and is always up for a chat, Meade, the Marshall Center director, said.

"Oh my gosh, it's like a family, a big family," Irwin said.

Her 1,186.90 a month salary, plus benefits, all covered by the city, allows her to live with her brother and her cat. She helps pay the rent and other bills -- anything left over supports her passions for cooking, dancing and spending time with friends.

"I love it," Irwin said simply, pausing from a post lunch cleanup at Luepke last week. "It's, like, independent."

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542; http://www.twitter.com/col_cityhall;andrea.damewood@columbian.com.