It’s clear from the way she talks about Riverbrook’s vocational program that Day Program Director Colleen Powers loves her job. “We do something unique here at Riverbrook,” she says. “Can you tell I’m excited?”
Riverbrook’s Workforce Development program is unusual in the world of vocational programs for people with intellectual disabilities, because Riverbrook women get to explore, experience, and ultimately find work they love. Over 20 women have paid and volunteer vocational opportunities through the program, at as many different community sites, along with a number of entrepreneurial endeavors. The process used to find that work exemplifies the kind of hands-on attention Riverbrook women receive in all aspects of care.
It begins with a conversation. Each resident has a team consisting of parents, a Service Coordinator, staff and the woman’s advocate who gather to talk about her interests, the skills she already has and those she would like to develop. If she loves animals, how about a trial run at Purradise, a local cat shelter run by the Berkshire Humane Society? Or, if she likes to keep things spick and span, maybe she’d be a good fit for the Exceptionally Yours housekeeping team? If there are no jobs in Riverbrook’s arsenal that suit the soon-to-be employee, Riverbrook makes it their mission to go out and find one. There is much networking with local businesses to help them understand the value of hiring a Riverbrook woman.
“Developing good skills is an important part of Riverbrook’s job coaching program,” Colleen Powers explains. “When you hire a Riverbrook woman, you’re getting a conscientious employee who will arrive on time, with a good attitude.” The program also coaches Riverbrook women on interview skills, navigating relationships with co-workers and confronting and overcoming workplace difficulties.
The sorts of jobs available to Riverbrook women are the exact jobs that anyone looking for paid entry level work might take, with one special caveat. “Riverbrook does something called ‘job carving.’ Through hands-on vocational assessments, we are able to identify a piece of a job that the employee will be good at. So, maybe a woman can’t do collating and filing, but she can stuff and stamp envelops – we work with the employer to make that happen.”
Riverbrook women work or volunteer at a wide variety of places; they do hospitality and clerical work at the Red Lion Inn; they clean local libraries, churches and offices; they deliver Meals on Wheels and provide companionship to senior citizens at Kimball Farms. One resident has worked at the Marian Helpers Center for over two decades. Riverbrook women walk dogs and work in landscaping, including managing flower beds for the town of Stockbridge at Town Hall and the Chamber of Commerce. Entrepreneurial activities abound as well; in the summer, a flower cart overflows with beautiful blooms grown by Riverbrook women and snapped up by the community to adorn their dinner tables. A woman who is blind uses her Smart Brailler to transcribe local menus to braille for local restaurants whose vision-impaired patrons appreciate having a braille option. After over a year of training, another resident has launched a career as a motivational speaker and is determined to be a voice for people with disabilities everywhere.
Riverbrook women aren’t the only ones to benefit from Riverbrook’s vocational program. The connection with the community goes both ways. A handful of Riverbrook women help with setup for the Council on Aging luncheons, and then they stay to eat and socialize. A recent connection with the local Kiwanis club has been a boon to all involved; in exchange for volunteering some time for Riverbrook events, the club has been invited to use Riverbrook on Main’s space in Stockbridge Town Hall for their monthly meetings. Riverbrook women are fully involved members of their workplaces – they attend coworkers’ birthday parties, baby showers and office holiday parties, joining with their colleagues in all the usual joys and sorrows of life. They go on bus trips to baseball games and attend other sporting events together.
“We’re doing something really special here at Riverbrook,” Colleen states. “Riverbrook women don’t just work behind the scenes. They don’t just do a job and come home. They do work that’s meaningful for them and for the world to see – joyful work – and it creates links within the community, connecting us all. It’s a program like no other!”