New Careers Via the Vocational Rehabilitation and Self-Sufficiency Programs

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Learn how programs and creative thinking helped get an Oregonian back on the job.

PORTLAND – Joel Roberts, 45, was diagnosed with a permanent partial disability after having back surgery. He could no longer make a living in construction, the career he had done most of his adult life.

“I was scared. I mean, I had a certain skill set,” Joel said. “What do I do now? How do I support my family?”

After meetings with a private rehabilitation service went nowhere, Joel met with Vikki Burnside, a family coach with Self-Sufficiency Programs. Joel was meeting with Vikki regarding benefits to get his family through a difficult time. He was eager to get back to work, but not sure where to start. 

“I’m in a situation where I’ve got a family to support, and money is not coming in,” Joel said. “My stress level was through the roof. I had to open my mind to new things. When I talked to Vikki and she said she knew someone at VR who could help me, it was that spark of hope that I needed.”

Vikki referred Joel to Connie Foster at the East Portland Vocational Rehabilitation office.

“I’ve known Connie for years, and I knew she had experience with worker’s compensation, specifically the preferred workers program,” Vikki said.

The Oregon Preferred Worker Program helps qualified Oregon workers who have permanent restrictions from on-the-job injuries. Connie knew how to approach employers about the benefit of hiring workers through the program.

Connie opened a VR file with Joel in February 2019. Joel discussed his dream of driving trucks for a living, but also his limitations. He didn’t want a job that took him away from his family overnight, and he couldn’t do any driving that requires frequent stops.

“When he first came in, Joel was at his wit’s end,” Connie said. “He just needed some guidance and someone to listen to his goals, and that’s what we do at VR.”

After doing a series of vocational tests and a physical capacity evaluation, Connie referred Joel to IITR, a truck driving school in Clackamas with a high success rate.

“This was a beautiful thing,” Joel said, smiling widely. “It’s a fantastic program.”

After four weeks, Joel graduated from the school. He was offered a full-time job in August 2019 at Javelin Logistics, a transportation and distribution company. Joel drives a 53-foot truck each day from Portland to eastern Oregon. He is home each evening and makes it to most of his son’s wrestling matches.

Connie is retiring from VR in April 2020 after more than 20 years with the program. She said results like Joel’s are why she stayed in the field for so many years.

Joel loves his new career. He said the collaboration and the support he received from VR and SSP made the difference.

“I felt understood and listened to,” he said. “Vikki and Connie communicated with me and made me feel a part of it the whole way. These two people changed my life.”

About Author

Angela Yeager is a Communications Officer with the Department of Human Services' Employment First initiative. Employment First is a collaboration with the Office of Developmental Disabilities Services, Vocational Rehabilitation, and the Oregon Department of Education to promote community employment for Oregonians with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

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