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Equality, inclusion at heart of LifeQuest job efforts for individuals with disabilities

Daily Republic - 10/14/2023

Oct. 13—MITCHELL — Having a job is an essential part of healthy, independent living.

A job means wages to pay rent, make car repairs or to buy a ticket to a movie. For many it is also part of their personal identity, something that helps define them as an individual and gives them a reason to roll out of bed in the morning.

Alli Witte and the staff at LifeQuest know this, and it's something they hope they can help extend to their clients at the non-profit. As part of that effort, throughout the month of October, they will be observing and celebrating National Disability Employment Awareness Month. The month is designed to commemorate the many contributions of people with disabilities to America's workplaces and economy, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

For Witte and the staffers at LifeQuest, it's an extension of the work they do all year long, the goal of which is to enrich the lives of individuals with developmental disabilities. The community organization does this through a number of different programs and numerous volunteers and partners.

"I think the two words that best sum it up are equality and inclusion," said Witte, who works as a shared living specialist at LifeQuest and also serves on the Mitchell Advisory Council for People with Disabilities. "Like every individual on the planet, they are capable, just as you and I are. So inclusion and equality are the biggest thing."

LifeQuest works year-round to support disabled individuals in Mitchell. That includes outreach programs like those found at 401 Create or in the Shared Living Program. It also provides connections between its clientele who want to enter the work world and employers who may be interested in providing them with a job that works for them.

There can be challenges in finding the right fit, Witte said. A job should line up well with a client's capabilities and it should mesh with their personality and interests. As with anyone trying to find a job at which they are happy, it can be tricky finding the right match. Some employers may have an interest in bringing on a LifeQuest client but may not necessarily have the funds to do so.

"I don't think there are a ton of options out there, not to sound negative, but I think that is a struggle. The employer may need more than what they are capable of, which is not a fault on anyone. So I think the number of options is kind of a bummer sometimes," Witte said. "Some places here in town, they don't have the funding to hire an individual. They will take volunteers left and right, which is wonderful, but sometimes there's just not the funding there."

Volunteerism is a good option for getting clients interested and involved, but it doesn't necessarily carry the same responsibility or satisfaction that comes with earning a paycheck, even a modest one.

Being part of a team of paid employees is a way to gain another level of independence. Through the shared employee experience a client can find new doors opened to opportunities at making friends, attending shared social functions and having a little money in their pocket that wasn't an allowance.

"One of my participants got his first job, and when he got his first check he was so excited. Now he didn't have to ask his mom when he wanted to buy a movie or buy a poster, and that is amazing," Witte said. "He also has someone giving him rides to and from LifeQuest, and he can finally pay that person out of my own pocket, with my own hard earned money, so that's really cool too."

Darla McGuire, a program manager for quality assurance at LifeQuest who also oversees the job development program, said searching for and finding a job can be a big deal to anyone, and it is no different for LifeQuest clients.

"It can be challenging for all of us to find a job, but I think it's all about making connections and building off that and being able to show people what they can do," McGuire said. "It can be a way to overcome some of those barriers."

A recent report from LifeQuest indicates that 87 LifeQuest clients have found employment through the organization's efforts and the cooperation of 58 area businesses.

Pam Hanna, executive director for LifeQuest, said that is a testament to the determination of their clients, their staff and the generosity of the Mitchell business community.

"It's really worth noting that we have a very generous community. So while there are challenges, we really have a community that steps up and partners with us to find employment opportunities," Hanna said. "Career Connections, which (McGuire) oversees, over the years has helped people to find jobs of interest so that they will be successful. Not just our clients being successful, but the employer is also experiencing success with that relationship."

The event on Tuesday morning will be another chance to celebrate the success of both employees and employers. The morning will include a presentation by VJ Smith titled "The Richest Man in Town," as well as the presentation of the annual Cal Schultz Award honoring the employee and employer of the year.

This year's National Disability Employment Awareness Month also corresponds with the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by federal agencies, in programs receiving federal financial assistance, in federal employment and in the employment practices of federal contractors. So there will be multiple reasons to celebrate.

Witte said the annual event is both celebratory and emotional.

"Last year I went and I knew the gentleman who won the employee award. To see the surprise on his face...and all of his family were there," Witte said. "It was the most amazing thing and he still talks about it every day."

The event is set for 9 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 17 at the Highland Conference Center. It will kick off with registration and refreshments before the program itself begins officially at 9:15 a.m. The event is free and open to the public.

Hanna said the event is a time to recognize, to celebrate and to look to the future at how best to help LifeQuest clients live up to their full potential. Getting all that done is LifeQuest's job, she said, and they hope, with the ongoing support from employers and the community, to continue that by helping their clients find a job of their own.

"We're just really excited to partner with the community and the members that help to put on this event. It's a great opportunity to recognize people for their employment accomplishments throughout the year," Hanna said. "It's a great event, and partnering together to do it is even better."

More information about LifeQuest client job placement can reach out to LifeQuest at 605-996-2032 or 605-996-9891.

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