KALAMAZOO, MI — The last year has vastly changed the job market. But one Kalamazoo organization has found new opportunities amid the pandemic for adults with disabilities and mental illness.

More job openings have led Kalamazoo companies to be more open to hiring within the disability community, said Jonathan Kraker, MRC’s Director of Community Employment. MRC Industries Inc. serves individuals across the county with developmental or intellectual disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, emotional impairments and mental illness.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped Michigan’s workforce. Most recent U.S. Department of Labor data shows there were about 590,963 Michiganders getting unemployment pay for the week of Feb. 8.

The silver lining of the changing job market amid the turmoil of the pandemic could be a cultural shift in how the workforce values adults with disabilities and mental illness, Kraker said.

“To change that mentality is going to take some work,” he said. “It’s only been a handful of years that we’ve been showing that someone with a disability, with the appropriate accommodations, can not only work out in the community, but will be adding to the organizations that they’re working for and adding to the community.”

MRC’s community employment initiative was expanded and funded in 2015 to dedicate more resources to integrated employment. At the core of their mission is the knowledge that everyone has employable skills, Kraker said.

MRC Industries Inc. traces its roots to the former McKercher Rehabilitation Center, but has operated under the shorter name for the organization since the 1980s.

In 2019, MRC found job placements for 130 of the 195 participating adults, which they refer to as “consumers,” according to the nonprofit’s annual report.

The upheaval of 2020 affected MRC’s consumers just like any other working Michigander — there was financial stress, fear of the unknown and feelings of isolation and loss of purpose.

During the pandemic, a dozen or more consumers were furloughed and not all were brought on back to work as restrictions lifted, Kraker said. Additionally, a quarter of the program’s consumers paused services out of fear of COVID-19, Kraker said.

When the first cuts were made, based on which employees were and were not essential, the disability community was hit hard, said Joshua Behymer, an employment training specialist at MRC Industries Inc. Employees who worked in food service and hospitality saw their jobs dissolve as travel and dining services screeched to a halt last spring, he said.

“I feel like that, on a national scale, was not talked about nearly enough — about how people with disabilities are losing their jobs and how that’s impacting everything in their life,” Behymer said.

Many of Behymer’s consumers’ finances are bolstered by Supplemental Security Income, a federal program designed to help aged, blind and disabled people who have little or no income. The SSI allocations are based on income levels, but the system was not keeping up with the quickened rate of job loss, Behymer said.

“When you lose your job, SSI check stays down as if you were working for up to a couple of months,” he said. “Now we’re getting into issues of, ‘How do I pay for my rent? How I pay for my medication?’”

Several consumers who had been successfully placed and were out of the system for years were now coming back to MRC looking for immediate help, he said. Many of the questions being asked were outside of what employment training specialists do, Behymer said.

Employment training specialists work to find the right employer match for consumers. Behymer oversees all of the developmental disability caseloads in the organization. Employment barriers range from mental disabilities to vision loss, but the through line is the universal experience of wanting a purpose, he said.

“Most of the people I meet with their needs are met, they don’t really want for much in terms of financial gain.” he said. “What they want is that just human interaction. That sense of being a part of something.”

For Nichole Schipper, who oversees all of the mental illness caseloads, lack of employment created an even deeper sense of isolation for her consumers. Before the pandemic, Schipper describes her style as “more rigid” and laser-focused on job preparedness and professionalism.

“That was very different once coronavirus came about,” she said. “I didn’t even care if we talked about a job. I just wanted to make sure that today was going to be okay.”

Among the challenges were also successes. The pandemic gave more time for consumers to explore their interests and find employment options they were excited about, Schipper said.

The pandemic also opened more doors to employers that didn’t previously tap into the workforce made up of adults with disabilities or mental illness, she said.

“I think it’s made it a little easier for the opportunity to at least be a little more open-minded,” she said. “Hopefully that’s going to change their whole thought process and, even after COVID, they remain this way.”

MRC’s community employment division is working with Integrated Services of Kalamazoo to create a program for employment education in high schools for students with disabilities, Kraker said.

Michigan law provides educational services to students with disabilities up to the age of 26. That is longer than the federal act, which stops requiring educational services at 21.

By bringing MRC’s job training programs front-and-center early on, the hope is young adults with disabilities will more seamlessly transition into a job or educational path of their choice, Kraker said.

“For folks who have a disability, that’s not always the culture that they’re in,” he said. “They just go through the process, they hit 26 and no one’s really come alongside of them to say here’s how you need to prepare for employment.”

Community employment is just one branch of MRC’s work. Services include skill building, case management, community employment and a social clubhouse.

ArtWorks, an art studio and shop on the Kalamazoo Mall, is also under the MRC umbrella. Adults with disabilities or mental illness can use the studio space to create and sell artwork.

In addition to art skills, artWorks is teaching “soft skills” for job training, like attaining a task, interacting with peers and being receptive to feedback, artWorks Unit Manager Amy Thill said.

“It is our goal to really highlight what our artists can do,” she said. “They’re great, amazing people with abilities and we like to highlight the abilities, not the disabilities. We can learn from each other.”

Artist Meghan Matthews, 33, found the artWorks program while at MRC’s Pathways program.

The Pathways clubhouse provides a variety of vocational, social and recreational services to adults with mental illness, according to the MRC website.

Through MRC, Matthews found employment at Burger King, where she has worked part-time for the last five years. She has aspirations to be a teacher or daycare provider, and is working with a job coach to find opportunities to work with kids, she said.

Matthews first started the Pathways program in her 20s, and found a home at the artWorks studio. Her best-selling paintings are a series of cats holding coffee mugs. Artists receive 75% of the proceeds from their artwork.

Just like any other group space, the art studio has gotten a COVID-friendly makeover. The studio now has reduced capacity and additional dividers for social distancing.

New policies for wearing masks and increased handwashing took training, reminders and patience, much like in any other work environment, Thill said.

“I think every human being, we don’t like to deal with the unexpected,” she said. “We all are creatures of habit and routine so there’s no real difference there.”

Prior to the pandemic, 25 artists could work together onsite at one time. Now, some artists prefer to collaborate virtually while onsite work has been reduced to 11 artists at a time, Thill said.

Despite events like Art Hop going virtual, artWorks artists continued to share their creations outside of the shop this holiday, participating in the Portage Holiday Card walk and seasonal window displays.

A new partnership with Taco Bob’s has also expanded the artists’ reach, with artwork marked for sale hanging in the popular restaurant’s downtown location.

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