—by Nicole Clevenger
(Editor's note: This story originally appeared in "Work Is Recovery: True stories of real people who benefit from Supported Employment, the evidence-based practice," a booklet which was published in March 2007. View the free PDF of "Work Is Recovery".
Lorain, OH—Wilson is the kind of man who likes surprises. He is 58 years old, and at this age, one might think there are not many things that catch him off guard. However, the events that have transpired during his return to work have been nothing short of shocking to him.
An Unexpected Turn Of Events
One day three years ago, Wilson went to a job interview at a large national department store in a local shopping mall to apply for a maintenance position. He brought a copy of his resume, spoke briefly with a representative of the company, and climbed back into his car with little expectation of being hired. You see, because of his age, Wilson was convinced that prospective employers would not seriously consider him for a job. He was completely unprepared for what happened next.
Driving home from the interview, his cell phone rang. He answered, and a manager from the store said that he could not hire him for the position for which he had applied. Wilson was sure that his fear of being too old to work had become a reality. His heart sank. The manager further explained that Wilson was overqualified for the maintenance position, and the store was interested in hiring him as a supervisor instead. In partial disbelief, Wilson laughed heartily out loud with delight. He thought, “This has to be a joke!”
It Was Not A Joke
Wilson accepted the job offer and is now supervisor of the cleaning and retail technicians for the department store, which is located in Lorain County. His qualifications and training are outstanding. He is certified in heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) as well as carpentry, electricity, and plumbing.
Although he has his own office, he does not spend much time there. He is in the store, overseeing the work of his staff and contractors. He also performs a range of tasks himself. One minute he may need to fix a boiler, air conditioner, or elevator, and the next minute he might need to fix shelves and clothing racks, or even simply change a burned-out light bulb.
"I do everything,” he laughs. "That’s what you call job security.”
Wilson enjoys making rounds throughout the store, because he gets to interact with other staff members. He likes to small talk, to tease, to share stories and jokes. The interaction gives him a chance to build rapport—a friendly atmosphere of trust—with the people he serves.
The joy that is so obvious in Wilson today is in direct contrast to the painful sadness that he felt in the recent past. Several years ago, he was unemployed, depressed, and virtually drowning in alcoholism. As a result of his drinking, he lost everything: his job, his family, his self-respect. As time passed, he felt smaller and smaller, and, eventually, he felt almost unnoticeable.
One day during this dark period, Wilson drove a friend to an appointment at The Nord Center, a provider of mental health services in Lorain County. Waiting outside in his car, Wilson continued to struggle silently with depression. His friend noticed that he appeared more distraught than usual and gently urged him to go inside the Center to ask for help. He listened. He went in. On that day, his life began to change.
Wilson Takes A Chance
With the help of a team of service providers at the Center (e.g., a psychiatrist, mental health therapist, addictions counselor, etc.), Wilson embarked on a journey toward sobriety. He started to take medication for his depression and began mental health therapy and substance abuse counseling to understand the intense emotions that were causing him to drink. He also started to attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings regularly and to work with an AA sponsor.
Almost a year into his recovery, he expressed the desire to find a job again, and he began to work with a supported-employment specialist at The Nord Center to achieve his goal. Yet, a part of him remained skeptical.
"I thought that if I took employment services, they would just find me a job to keep me busy,” he says. "I had a very good job before all this happened. I was so depressed because I thought I would never find a decent job again.”
He was also concerned that he would be asked to file for Social Security. Case Manager Hilda Munoz, CCDC III, LPN, assured him that he would not be required to apply for disability insurance and that he was not too old to find a job he liked. She recalls helping him focus on the positives in his life—his strengths and his desires.
With funding from the Ohio Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation (BVR), Wilson enrolled in a maintenance training program, and with Hilda’s encouragement, he applied for a job at a manufacturing company. He got that job, but the company soon went out of business. So Hilda encouraged him to look for another job. This time he applied at the department store. He explains that her belief in him and her support sustains him even today as he struggles with occasional panic attacks. Despite these episodes of anxiety, he continues to go to work daily.
"If you like what you are doing, it really helps,” he says. "I found that out.”
In his job as supervisor at the department store, Wilson is responsible for hiring employees for the maintenance crew. It is a role that brings him great joy.
"It feels good to hire people,” he says. "It’s amazing, really. I got help, and now I can help somebody else, too. I give people a chance.”
One day not too long ago, Wilson marched into Hilda’s office and, with a smile on his face, asked her to accompany him to the parking lot. She asked why, but Wilson would not say. When she arrived outside, she saw a bright-white full-sized pickup truck parked before her.
"It’s mine,” he said proudly. "And I am paying for it all by myself!”
Wilson’s determination to have a competitive job has opened doors that he thought were closed forever. As a result of the extra money and improved self-esteem, he is on a path toward financial independence. He has also begun to rebuild relationships with his children, who live out of state. Of all the surprises that have occurred during his recovery journey, this chance to reconnect with the people he loves most is undoubtedly the best of all.
The "Work Is Recovery" Stories
Nicole Clevenger, BFA, is a peer consultant at the Ohio SE CCOE, an initiative of the Center for EBPs at Case Western Reserve University. Edited by Paul M. Kubek, director of communications at the Center for EBPs.