Workers with disabilities showcase Oregon nonprofit’s success

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SALEM, Ore. — Rachael Beem is a transit host, Jody Ulricksen a forklift driver, and Scott Taber a courtesy clerk.

They have different jobs but similar goals, to be productive in the community and live a meaningful life.

Garten Services is helping them do both.

The Salem-based nonprofit integrates people with disabilities into the community, including finding and helping them keep jobs.

Garten offers opportunities in its own business enterprises — recycling, commercial laundry, mail services, print services, packaging and assembly, custodial, electronics recycling, and secure document destruction — and currently employs about 200 people with disabilities in Salem, Dallas and Eugene.

It also assists other local businesses and employers with recruiting, training and hiring their program participants.

October was National Disability Employment Awareness Month, but Garten promotes the working potential of people with disabilities all year.

They hope success stories like Beem, Ulricksen, and Taber convince employers to provide more opportunities.

• TRANSIT HOST WITH THE MOST

A transit customer approaches Rachael Beem with a question about Bus 11.

“It doesn’t come downtown,” she tells them. “You’ll have to catch Bus 5 or 19 to get to 11.”

The scene plays out over and over during Beem’s shift as a Transit Host for Cherriots. Each time, she reels off the bus and route options without hesitation.

She carries a blue three-ring binder containing detailed maps of all the routes, rates and other important information, but she seldom needs to crack it open.

Beem, 48, knows the bus system like the back of her hand. She got the job about a year ago, bringing with her knowledge from being a longtime Cherriots rider.

She didn’t grow up in Salem but has been in the community 29 years and still relies on the bus. Other riders are known to ask her route questions even when she’s not on the clock or wearing her safety vest.

Beem works five hours a day Monday through Friday at the Downtown Transit Center.

Her favorite part of the job is talking to people and being out in the community. She is popular on the concourse, with many people stopping to give her a hug or just to talk. Not just customers, but drivers, too.

She doesn’t have a least favorite part. Not even working outside during the cold and rain can put a damper on the job.

“I’ve got rain gear,” she says.

• POOL OF TALENT IS OVERLOOKED

The local unemployment rate among people with disabilities is estimated to be nearly 70 percent. According to U.S. Census records, 4,233 of the 13,409 people with cognitive disabilities in Marion County are working.

Garten has a waiting list of clients who want to find employment and its mission is to showcase an often-overlooked pool of talent.

“Just because a person with a disability doesn’t know how to do a job now doesn’t mean they can’t be trained,” resource development manager Gaelen McAllister says. “Just like all employees, with the right training, they can learn to do things.”

Garten specializes in carefully matching individuals to community jobs in which they will succeed and works closely with Oregon Vocational Rehabilitation Services and county developmental disabilities programs.

Other local organizations such as Goodwill Industries of the Columbia Willamette and Shangri-La also are dedicated to helping disabled people find jobs.

• NAVIGATING THE RECYCLING HIGHWAY

Hundreds of thousands of pounds of cardboard, paper and plastic are shuffled in and out of a 130,000-square-foot warehouse in north Salem, with the help of Jody Ulricksen.

As a certified forklift operator, Ulricksen is an important cog in operations at Garten’s recycling division. He moves bins and barrels full of recyclable materials from one section of the bustling warehouse to another, wearing a high-visibility, yellow and black safety coat.

Safety is a big part of his job.

Ulricksen, 41, masterfully navigates the narrow and busy pathways, always on the lookout around corners for pedestrians and other equipment operators.

“You watch them and they watch you,” he says. “As long as everybody is careful and people pay attention to what they’re doing and they’re not in a hurry, it’s OK.”

Ulricksen works full time and has been with Garten for 19 years. Operating a forklift is a skill he learned on the job about eight years ago.

While he spends most of his workday on a forklift, he does other jobs around the warehouse as needed.

“If they need help they ask me, and I do whatever I can,” he says.

• CREATING WIN-WIN SITUATIONS

Garten has formed successful partnerships with Salem-Keizer Transit and Salem Health, to just name a few.

Cherriots has contracted with Garten for transit hosts for about two years.

“It really helps us and helps them, and our customers and community really benefit,” says Ron Siegrist, customer service manager for the fixed route system. “We get a lot of positive feedback from our customers letting us know how much they appreciate the service. And not only from our customers, but internal feedback from our drivers.”

Salem Health has hired two people with disabilities to work in nutrition services. They currently do sanitation jobs, such as washing dishes, but are able to interview for other positions like any other employee.

“These people are solid, consistent, dedicated and long-term employees,” says Randy Calligan, nutrition services retail manager. “The question should be why would we not consider them? One of the scenarios we discussed up front with Garten is that it’s got to be a win-win scenario for both the employee and Salem Health. It has been just that.”

• IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL

Scott Taber wishes more customers would take him up on his offer and he could get more hours.

While frustrated about both, he still loves his job as a courtesy clerk at the downtown Grocery Outlet.

Taber, 19, helps customers carry their groceries out, but not in a typical way. He has a trailer attached to the back of his power wheelchair with a sign that reads: “I (Heart) Hauling.”

He has limited mobility in his arms and legs and uses a Tobii Dynavox, an eye-controlled speech generating device, to communicate.

Taber utilizes some pre-programmed responses, such as: “Hi, I’m Scott, would you like help carrying out your groceries today?” Live responses can take time because he uses eye-tracking technology to type letters, words and sentences instead of a traditional keyboard or mouse.

“I like it here,” the McNary High School graduate says. “It’s not in an office. The employees are helpful, and I like helping the customers.”

Taber’s biggest challenge on the job is the weather. Cold affects his body, and his chair doesn’t do well in the rain.

On a recent Saturday morning, he was eager to begin his shift. Someone helped him attach the cart to his chair, and then he was off to the races. The only thing that slows him down is when a customer declines his service.

“I get mad when people say no,” he says. “I want you to write that.”

• CHALLENGING EMPLOYERS TO DIVERSIFY

Anna Rogers, a community employment specialist for Garten, is searching for additional opportunities for Taber and her other clients. Her job is never easy.

“Historically speaking, people are closed off about employing people with disabilities,” says Rogers, though Salem is better about it than other communities.

“We can always strive for better,” she says. “I would challenge employers to look at how you can diversify and make your company more inclusive. People with disabilities are not as represented as other diverse populations.”

Garten provides what it refers to as “supportive employment,” assisting not only its clients but businesses that explore offering opportunities.

“Garten understands the potential trepidations — real or imagined — that might exist when an organization considers working with them,” says Calligan at Salem Health. “They openly discuss the trepidations and work hard to clear the path toward making both the employee and the business successful.”