Employer, employee team-up with onsite job coaching

—by Nicole Clevenger

Kirtland, OH—I feel as though I have somehow been transported to the countryside, even though I am actually only 25 miles outside of Cleveland. As I drive, the buildings fall away from the horizon and are replaced with thick patches of trees, which, from a distance, remind me of tightly packed broccoli.

My mind wanders to John, a participant of Supported Employment services at NEIGHBORING, a community agency in Lake County, and the conversation we had about his job. John works at the Lake Metroparks Farmpark in Kirtland, where he helps maintain the property, both indoors and out. A typical day at the park for John is not the same as it is for most people who visit. It crosses my mind that, at this very moment, he could be spackling and painting a wall, hanging banners, cleaning carpets, polishing the floor in the visitors center.

John says he has enjoyed his job at the Lake Metroparks Farmpark since being hired four years ago. In fact, he has not missed a single shift during that time. According to John, his success is partly the result of his own fortitude and the guidance he receives as a participant of Supported Employment services. Another equally important factor, he says, is the compatibility of the relationship with his boss, Beth Florian, facilities coordinator at the Farmpark.

Today, I am going to the park to get some photos of John at work and also to interview Beth. With John's permission, she has agreed to talk with me about her experiences working with John and his employment specialist. I notice a small flutter of excitement in the pit of my stomach as I recall past field trips to the Farmpark—many years ago when I was a child in school. The landscape has that effect.

And On This Farm He Had Some Ducks

When I arrive at the park, I see a caravan of yellow-orange school buses lined up out front. At once the smell of freshly cut grass envelops me. A dozen pair of little feet step out of a bus onto the sidewalk, their voices raised in excitement. I remember that feeling of joy and anticipation as I emerged from the bus as a very small child—oh, the joy of a field trip! I watch the children march in a serpentine line toward the pavilion as they chatter and giggle and point at the animals. Their voices fade into the background the farther they get from the buses.

In the sudden stillness, I scan the landscape to appreciate the full view: the undulating green terrain neatly dissected by split-rail fences and surrounded by a curtain of trees. It's quite tranquil at the Farmpark, peaceful even, but not quiet. The rope on the flagpole is clicking in the wind. Several geese call to each other across the pond. I hear a lawnmower engine behind me. Turning, I see not a lawnmower but a tractor pulling a wagon filled with people. No wonder John loves it here. This is not an ordinary park.

I go to the visitors center to meet with Beth. For a place that is literally crawling with living things, I am struck by how clean it is—evidence of some of John's work here. I think about him again, somewhere on the grounds right now, possibly changing a light bulb, pressure washing sidewalks, maybe setting up chairs for a meeting or an event.

In Beth's office, I start by asking her to tell me a little bit more about the Lake Metroparks Farmpark. She lists some of the regular features of the park, including a renewable energy exhibit, a dairy exhibit (yes, you can milk a cow), an equine center, a plant science center, and a sugarhouse where maple syrup is made onsite. I envision the things she describes, memories of my childhood visits here bubbling to the surface of my mind.

A voice erupts from Beth's walkie-talkie. She holds up a finger and briefly pauses our discussion, promptly giving the person who calls some instructions. Without missing a beat, she continues to explain to me that the park is a working farm, and it is also a center for educational, recreational, and cultural events. She tells me that large crowds come here for a variety of functions from school field trips to concerts.

"We are showing agriculture and how farmers manage the land, plants, and animals that sustain human kind," Beth says. "That is the serious part of our mission, but it's also a fun place."

The Magic Of The Metroparks: Making It Happen

As facilities coordinator, Beth oversees the work of employees like John who maintain the facilities and prepare the buildings and grounds for special events. Another voice springs from the walkie-talkie. This time it is John. Beth gives him some directions for a task. Even though the two of them only connect for a moment, it is clear that John and Beth know each other well. They communicate very efficiently, without much detail, functioning like a well-oiled machine. I can see why a reliable employee like John is so valuable to her. She has a lot to manage.

"There is a business meeting at noon, and this evening we have a function in the pavilion, too," Beth says as she leans forward to emphasize the importance of what she is saying. "Four-hundred-and-sixty-four kids are here today," she says. Quickly, I calculate: 464 kids equal approximately 4,640 potential fingerprints, which explains why the windows in the visitor's center need to be cleaned three times a day. John was right. The children at the park are "quite plentiful."

John and Beth: The Early Days

Beth tells me about the day she first met John, and what it was like having John's employment specialist join them for the interview.

"I wasn't sure what to think," she recalls. "John put in the application on his own. In the interview, we started talking, and John and I were having a good conversation and he seemed really friendly. I wondered why did he need this other person. I had never done this before."

Then John explained that he was there with his job coach and that people participating in Supported Employment services can receive onsite help as they learn and adjust to their new jobs.

"My gut feeling after talking to him was that I would find a spot for him," says Beth. "It takes time to find the right person. We employers tend to forget that even if a person is extremely qualified, the interviewer has to feel like people will mesh with each other and with the environment at the facility. It's really all about the relationships."

Job Coach: Help For Employee and Employer

One of the important relationships was with John's employment specialist: the job coaching for John turned out to be a tremendous resource.

"Whenever you have a new employee, it takes a lot of time to get them acclimated to the job and the facility," Beth says. "Having an employment specialist there as a job coach took a big weight off my shoulders. She was in orientation. She helped explain things to John. In the early days, it was very helpful."

I remember John telling me something similar about the importance of job coaching from his employment specialist. He would have initially been too nervous to work without her support.

Exceeding Expectations

It has been more than four years since John started his job, and Beth says he has proven himself to be a superior employee. John has also increased the number of hours he works, and he sometimes opens and closes the park by himself. Beth says he even reminds her about things that need to be completed.

"He is extremely dependable, has never called off once," she says. "When I give him tasks, he leaves me notes to explain things. He's flexible. He fills in for people who call off work."
It sounds to me like Beth has learned to trust John, and I ask her if this is a fair conclusion.

"Absolutely," she says. "The trust was built because of how he has changed over time. I could just see his comfort level and confidence growing. Anyway, if John doesn't know how to do something, he will ask. He doesn't panic. I'm the one who panics." She laughs, but I can tell there is some truth to it.

A Sense of Responsibility

After my interview with Beth, I meet with John outside to take some photographs of him at work. He pulls up in a dark green Farmpark pickup truck. It looks new. I climb in and take a seat next to a large roll of black garbage bags. John stops for a minute to show me the features of the truck, which, in fact, is new. I tell him that it is obvious he likes his job: His pride is evident in his smile. He nods in agreement as he begins driving to the spot he picked to take the photos. He admits that his job gives him two things he needs: a sense of responsibility as well as some cash.

"Several janitors before me have resigned," he says. "I like my job. If I didn't do it, I wouldn't have anything to look forward to. [Before this job], I might have worked out or gone to the store during the day, but that's it. After a while, that gets old. It's boring. " He shrugs, "Other than work, I don't have that much going on."

After we take several pictures, John returns me to my car. I thank him for the opportunity to tell his story, and we part.

As I drive toward the exit, the sound of the clicking flagpole grows distant behind me, striking a chord that reverberates with memories of fieldtrips to the Lake Metroparks Farmpark. I ponder how most of us—teachers, parents, school children—are not aware of all the activities that take place behind the scenes to keep a park like this clean and well-maintained. Before pulling out onto the road, I think of the children who have yet to visit this magical place, and I am grateful for people like John and Beth who help make it all possible. 

Nicole Clevenger, BFA, is a consultant and trainer at the Ohio Supported Employment Coordinating Center of Excellence (Ohio SE CCOE), and initiative of the Center for Evidence-Based Practices (CEBP) at Case. The CEBP provides technical assistance to NEIGHBORING of Lake County for implementation of Supported Employment, the evidence-based practice. Edited by Paul M. Kubek, MA.