The Power of Community in Creating Opportunity for Workers of All Abilities

Posted on September 20, 2018

Jeff Southard knows about debt. Coming into the workforce after completing his bachelor’s degree in film production and following it up with a master's degree in theatre arts, he found himself in the position of having to take work, any work, to stay on top of his bills. While his dream job was broadcasting, he took what he thought would be a temporary role in financial education, leveraging his first-hand knowledge of budgeting, debt consolidation and money management to help others take control of their personal financial situations.

“I didn’t plan on this career path,” says Jeff. “I expected to work in the media industry, but I found that I could help people and have a big impact doing financial planning.”

Jeff brings two talents to his work—he is incredibly knowledgeable, and also incredibly compassionate.

“After years of working with college students, I’ve truly seen it all,” he says with a smile. Today he uses those skills to help another set of people who are in need of his expertise. In 2015 he joined Cares of Washington, a Seattle-based nonprofit that works with local businesses to provide tailored support and opportunities for individuals with disabilities to become self-sufficient.

Cares of Washington solves a critical problem in the marketplace. Employers see the value of a diverse workforce, and actively recruit workers from all walks of life, including those living with disabilities and those living below the poverty line. These workers often have unique needs and challenges that can threaten their ability to be productive at work.

That’s where Jeff and his colleagues come in.

Joe is an engineer at Lighthouse for the Blind. Lighthouse builds custom machined products that ultimately end up being used in military and civilian aircraft. A large percentage of their employees are living and working with one or more disabilities, including blindness, deafness or a combination sensory challenges. These individuals have the deep technical skills that the aircraft industry needs, but often have unique needs and challenges.

When Joe was hired at Lighthouse for the Blind, he was stuck under a pile of debt from medical bills. While he was thrilled to have employment, he was constantly dealing with the stress and anxiety from his financial situation. His manager at Lighthouse referred him to Jeff, and they set up a meeting to talk about the situation.

“Joe came with a grocery bag full of bills,” recalls Jeff. “He was so overwhelmed that he couldn’t even think about opening the bag. He didn’t want a handout, but he didn’t know where to begin with all of the bills.”

Joe and Jeff started out by leaving the pile of bills in the bag, and just focusing on Joe. They talked about the stress and anxiety of collections agencies calling, of not being able to plan for the future, and of feeling hopeless and overwhelmed by a system that seems incomprehensible at times.

As Joe came to trust that Jeff understood his unique situation, they began to sort through the bills and create a plan together. They created a strategy to take things in small chunks. Because Joe had been unemployed when he received some of the treatment, he was eligible for financial aid, or even a complete write-off of the bills. It took time, but as Jeff worked with Joe to pick off each piece of debt, isolate the creditor, figure out what resources were available and open up a channel to resolve the situation, Joe began to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

Medical bills are only one of the types of issues that Jeff sees in his daily work. “Housing is a huge issue in Seattle,” says Jeff. “It’s all about networking and finding available, affordable accessible options. The problem is that we have created this idea in our culture that we are supposed to be completely self-sufficient. Somehow it has become not ok to ask for help.”

As people like Joe share their appreciation for Jeff’s help, other employees come with their challenges. There is a sense of community-building that comes from knowing that someone is available and willing to help. For many organizations, that help has been something that falls on HR or management, and it’s a role they typically don’t have either the time or the resources to do well.

The unique value that Cares of Washington brings to their clients is twofold. First, they are providing that personalized, human-centered, local help that employees need. But second, they are providing value back to the business in a meaningful way. Finding qualified, talented, engaged employees is a challenge in every industry, but it is a particular challenge in the technology space. By engaging with Jeff, in a fee for service model, Lighthouse for the Blind, and other local businesses are helping individuals with different abilities, different financial situations, different socio-economic backgrounds, and many other diverse situations be able to create a more stable work environment, and in turn, and more engaged, connected community.

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