REACH client Niall Johnson, right, shares a laugh with Laurel Stafford, a employment specialist at REACH, on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017. Johnson currently works at Office Max in the Nugget Mall. October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

REACH community employment program benefits employees, employers

Loud laughter sounded from aisle C22 at JO-ANN Fabrics and Craft Store on Friday afternoon as Chevelle Hogan remembered the dance parties.

Hogan was folding black t-shirts and chatting with her job coach, Setsu Nomura, as she remembered the past two years that they’ve worked together. Hogan has been part of REACH Inc.’s supported employment program — which connects individuals with disabilities with part-time jobs in Juneau — for about six years. She has been at JO-ANN for a little less than a year.

She and Nomura reminisced about their time at the café in the State Office Building and when they would break into dance. Hogan particularly remembered the Michael Jackson music and unleashed her booming laugh as she recalled another co-worker poking fun at their dance moves.

A minute later, a man and woman walking by noticed Hogan’s green polo shirt and apron and came over.

“We’re looking for some chalk,” the man asked.

Hogan took a split second to think about it and walked briskly to aisle C27, leading the customers almost all the way down to the end.

“She went right to it,” Nomura murmured.

Nomura said that of the three jobs she’s worked alongside Hogan, this one is the best fit, and that Hogan is more independent and confident now than before.

The customers thanked Hogan and she went back to C22. As she was about to enter the aisle, Hogan noticed a shirt at the end of the row that was askew.

“That needs to be folded,” Hogan said, quickly getting to work.

A community need

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, an event intended to bring attention to the value that employees with disabilities bring to the workplace. This year’s theme is “Inclusion drives Innovation,” but REACH employees have been able to see that for years.

REACH’s supported employment program has been around for more than 20 years, said Dan Elstad, REACH Director of Vocational Services. Dozens of individuals with disabilities have found work as a result of the program, and Employment Specialist Stephanie Weitman said there are more than 50 people are in the program.

Employees from the program have cleaned the governor’s office for the past six administrations, Elstad said proudly. He still remembers how difficult it was to clean the hair left by Gov. Tony Knowles’ Labradors.

Program staff work hard to speak in-depth with prospective employees and prospective employers to figure out the best fit. Southeast Staff Manager Blanca V. Perez counted 35 employers in Juneau that have a REACH individual working for them.

REACH sometimes contacts employers about workers, but in many cases employers make the first contact. Rachael Ray, general manager of Extended Stay America, got in touch with REACH and has had an employee from the program working in the housekeeping department since March.

Ray saw the value of the program when she was at another hotel, and she views it as a win-win for employees and employers.

“It’s a need the community has,” Ray said. “This is a segment of our population. We as a community support this organization and why wouldn’t we want to engage them in the workforce to help also support themselves and the organization? It’s a community effort to help empower everyone to help take care of each other.”

Greater independence, greater stability

Hogan has progressively become more independent over the past few years, and last year moved into a community living home that allows her more freedom. She dyes the front of her hair green, in part to match her uniform at JO-ANN, and she cares for a pet chicken named Marilyn Monroe (“I thought she needed to come back to life as a chicken,” Hogan explained).

Weitman said one of the major aims of the program is to promote that kind of independence.

“Employment leads to more independence,” Weitman said. “The more independence you have with employment, the more financial independence you have, and it can lead to a more inclusive, more independent life where you rely less on family, less on staff and you develop a lot of natural supports in the workplace.”

Niall Johnson, another employee in the program, has worked at a number of jobs from Foodland to Blockbuster to Costco. He’s spent the past two years stocking and cleaning at OfficeMax, being without a job coach for the past year.

Johnson admitted it was “a little scary” when he began to work on his own, but he’s thriving. Starting this week, Johnson will work an extra hour every day that he goes to work. He’s made what he calls “all the friends” at work, and smiles broadly when he talks about the job.

Apart from the program being beneficial for employees, Coppa owner Marc Wheeler sees it as helpful for employers. Wheeler has worked with the program for about three years and has two people on staff as a result of the program.

Weitman said employees from supported employment programs tend to be reliable and hardly ever take sick days. Wheeler agreed.

“I think it’s been good for everybody,” Wheeler said. “I really recommend it to any employer. It’s honestly given us a lot of stability in that job.”

Brightening the mood

Wheeler said that one of the Coppa employees from the program, C.J., is a “jokester” and enlivens the mood in the kitchen. This seems to be a theme among employees in the program, from starting dance parties to cracking jokes.

As they sat around a table at REACH’s offices, Hogan and Johnson spent 10 minutes reflecting on jokes they play on each other and small workplace pranks. Weitman listened in and laughed. Hogan and Johnson recounted pranks: sneaking up and startling people and printing out a picture of a clown to scare friends.

Hogan said that in the coffee shop she used to work at, she would mess with the customers by singing or pretending to leap out of the cash register. Hogan said she doesn’t joke around quite as much now that she’s working at JO-ANN, but that hasn’t stopped her from brainstorming. As they walked out of the REACH offices, Hogan and Johnson discussed a prank where they wanted to put Rice Krispies in a friend’s shoes.

Two hours later, Hogan was at aisle C-22, telling Nomura about the upcoming prank. She chuckled about it but quickly got back to work, grabbing a box and marching on her own to a different aisle to put it on the shelf.

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or