He was an energetic, charismatic man. Hard work invigorated him, and the people he worked with at Essex’s Harley Davidson store thoroughly enjoyed his presence. He loved what he did — stacking T-shirts for sale — and he did it well, all while building a relationship with the community.
Elizabeth Sightler, executive director at Champlain Community Services, remembered the company’s late client with awe, explaining how the motorcycle enthusiast was a true example of what CCS embodies.
Founded in 1967, CCS was first set up as a sheltered workshop, or segregated work setting for people with disabilities. That trend began reversing in 1983, when Vermont provided services for people with disabilities to help them find employment, and in 2002, CCS was the last shelter to close.
Today, the nonprofit based at Colchester’s Fort Ethan Allen aims to provide independence in employment, living and community engagement for its 85 or so clients.
Walking through CCS, a sizeable puzzle of pictures hangs on the wall just past the community kitchen, where workers and their support staff energetically chatted and waved hello to anyone who strolled through. The display, mostly in black and white, showcases memories from CCS’ workshop days.
Those days are thankfully in the past, Sightler said.
Of Vermonters receiving developmental disabilities services, 48 percent are employed in the regular workforce, earning state minimum wage or higher. With the national average at 19 percent, CCS exceeds both measures, notching a 76 percent rate of employed clients and a 97 percent employment rate for workers with support.
In late February, Sightler traveled to the United Nations in Austria with other Vermont delegates to receive an award recognizing the state for its rapid progress in integrating people with disabilities into the workforce.
The award, presented by the 2017 Zero Project, acknowledges countries, governments and organizations that feature innovative human services.
Vermont, Sightler said, is unique. Supported employment allows for people with disabilities to achieve the confidence needed to feel like a contributing member of society.
“Supported employment is our jam,” she said, hands crossed on her office table, which was scattered with goodies from co-workers celebrating her return home.
The organization, she said, is like a family — one that embodies a “little engine that could” mentality.
With a handful of new programs emerging over the past few years, CCS now starts from the ground up. Its bridging program helps high school students, including those in Colchester, transition from their senior year into adulthood.
Similarly, the School2Work program helps high school juniors develop interests and skills for the competitive workforce. Way2Work, the organization’s supported employment program, matches clients with meaningful jobs.
In the latter, workers can learn to work independently and no longer need their support, which is paid through Medicaid.
In Vienna, Sightler sat on a panel of Vermonters presenting about the little brave state’s path to inclusion. The techniques behind CCS’ agenda were essential to the discussion, which drew an audience from over 70 countries.
“The things that happen in Vermont are really extraordinary,” Sightler reflected. “And [supported employment] is an example of that. There’s this collected vision that was implemented, and it really has an impact on the world.”
Before the trip, though, Sightler said she didn’t realize how big of an impact CCS truly has.
With hundreds of eyes locked on her and her fellow presenters, Sightler began to understand. Next to her sat a woman from Romania, a country where 90 percent of employed people with developmental disabilities in the workforce are stationed in sheltered workshops.
In the U.S., about 75 percent of people with developmental disabilities are in non-work programs or sheltered workshops.
“The idea that people with developmental disabilities can work out in the community is still such a provocative statement in the world, and it’s incredible to me,” Sightler said.
While CCS has made strides in inclusion, Sightler said there’s much work to do to erase stigma in her field.
With a new presidential administration, Sightler said CCS’ funding could be compromised. A decrease would largely affect the organization’s ability to further close the societal gap for the people it serves.
Either way, Sightler wants to increase the national impact CCS and Vermont has. Celebrating CCS’ 50th anniversary, 2017 represents an opportunity to look back and ahead, she added.
Read more about CCS’ bridge, School2Work and Way2Work programs and the people involved in upcoming issues of The Colchester Sun.