Senior’s essay wins state contest

     Buford High senior Parker Melton earned a full four-year tuition scholarship for his first place essay in the Governor’s Commission on Employment of People with Disabilities Journalism Contest.
     The scholarship is good at any state-supported college or university, and Parker plans to use the scholarship at the College of Charleston.
     Contestants addressed the theme, “A Strong Worksforce is an Inclusive Workforce: What Can You Do?”
     Below is Melton’s winning essay.
A Strong Worksforce is an Inclusive Workfoce: What Can You Do?
     One has Asperger’s Syndrome and graduated from high school with a 3.0.
     One had blood clots in her legs from a surgery she should have died from.
     One serrved in the military and became so addicted to crack cocaine she almost lost everything.
     All are now productive, tax-paying citizens because their employers, SCVRD and their families did what they could to give them hope and the tools to be included and successful in the workforce.
     And all are part of the 27% of employed people with disabilities in South Carolina in 2011 — 14% of South Carolinians have a disability, according to Disability Statistics.
A “greater man”
     Joel Stimax says success to him simply means being “a greater man.”
     And for Joel to reach that success, he needed the help of his family, SCVRD and an employer.
     Joel was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome when he was three. He’s now 21 years old, lives with his parents and works at Cracker Barrel. Joel is part of the 56% of autistic Americans who finished high school, according to the Autism Society, and he is one of three autistic workers at the Rock Hill restaurant.
     Joel’s mom, Lois Stimax, pushed Joel to be included, and she says family can do a lot to help family members with disabilities be included in the workforce.
     “Encourage them to keep trying,” Lois said. “Once they have the job, continue to encourage them in the job. Tell them they are doing well and that they are keeping good track of things.”
     Lois says helping Joel be prepared for a job wasn’t always easy. She remembers one time when Joel just wanted to give up during SCVRD’s Work Keys.
      “Joel looked at me and said, ‘What if I don’t pass the test?’” Lois said. “And I said, ‘You will take it again and you will pass it the next time, but whatever you do you’ll keep working hard.’”
     Also, families can help the family member with a disability get to places that offer help.
     “Often time families have to provide transportation, especially initially. So they have to have some flexibility in transportation,” Lois said. “Eventually, depending on the employment situation, other arrangements can be made.”
     Lois also says people with disabilities can — and must — do their part to be included in the workforce.
     Lois believes for people with disabilities to be successful, they must have initiative.
     “They have to take the first step. People around them should be there to open the door for them, but they have to be willing to walk through it,” Lois said. “People can’t make you do that. You have to be positive about your job. You can’t be defensive — you have to be willing to be taught.”
     Another thing people with disabilities can do is take advantage of SCVRD’s help, Lois says.
     Without SCVRD, Joel said, “I would be bored.”
     His mother added, “Isolated. It would prevent him from being part of the community. Finding people and places that are inclusive is important.”
     Rachel Nash, Joel’s counselor, also agrees that an inclusive workforce is important.
     “That’s how we learn and grow. That’s how we come together to accept people around us,” Rachel said. “Joel isn’t different. It’s important for Joel to see that, and other people to see that.”
     Rachel looks up to Joel as an inspiration to all.
     “There are a lot of days that I wished I was more like him, and I always believed in Joel because Joel never doubted Joel,” Rachel said.
     Lois says employers can think outside the box to help people with disabilities be part of the workforce.
     “The boss has to make a decision that he wants them to be successful,” Lois said. “Once that boss makes that decision, then everybody else looks at that disabled person as, not a disability, but as a person with a different set of abilities.”
     Last, Lois says an important thing an employer can do is match the job to the ability.
     “When you do that and you utilize the resources and the people with disabilities — when you put them together — you have people that are happy in their jobs,” Lois said.
Bringing something different to the table
     Call Aiken’s SCVRD office and the first person you’ll talk is Netrolua Coardes, the receptionist.
     Netrolua’s SCVRD counselor, Darlene Conley, likes to describe Netrolua as a team player and hard worker.
     “No matter what takes place, her temper never wavers,” Darlene said, “and I think that’s important to the job she has.”
     Five years ago, Netrolua had blood clots in her legs from ankle surgery to remove a cyst.
     Doctors were amazed she survived the blood clots. Netrolua is part of the 9% contributing South Carolinians who are physically disabled, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. She was out of work for four and a half years until she went to SCVRD.
      “I was in so much pain, but I knew I had to push through it,” Netrolua said. “I wouldn’t have known any resources to get a job without Voc Rehab. Voc Rehab is giving you the opportunity for help. It’s your job to take advantage of it.”
     The help of SCVRD and the support of her family are keys to the success of every person with disabilities.
     “When I first came home, I couldn’t drive. My family always provided transportation,” Netrolua said. “They were always there to give me support when I needed it.”
     Darlene believes one thing business can do is realize people with disabilities contribute in different ways from non-disabled people, but that doesn’t mean people with disabilities can’t do as good a job as the next person.
     “Everybody brings something different to the table,” Darlene said, “and I think when you start excluding people, then a very vital part of the operation and the functions of the job can’t be met because you leave out somebody who can bring something to the table.”
Addicted to success
     Traci James was nine, living in a drug house with her uncle, when she started abusing drugs, but she still made it through school on the honor roll.
     After she graduated, she served in the military. When she got out of the military, she started doing crack. Traci was part of the 7% of South Carolinians who abused drugs, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
     “Drugs meant more to me than my family. I was scared I was going to die because I wanted a better high,” she said. “This is the point where I thought I wasn’t going to make it.”
     Traci believes one thing every person with a disability can do is seek help from agencies like SCVRD.
     “My counselor was very helpful and was reassuring that Voc Rehab would get me on track,” Traci said.
     Traci knew she needed to get a job, she needed to get clean, and that’s exactly what she did.
     Karen Miller, Traci’s counselor, suggested she go to Vocational Rehabilitation. Even though Traci was scared of going to SCVRD, she knew she needed help.
     “Traci was hard to engage at first, but you just have to be patient. I kept giving her my support and soon it worked out for the best,” Karen said. “She embraced the concept of success.”
     Traci also believes it’s important for families to “give their support.”
     “They can help with job searching and suggest jobs the family member can handle,” Traci said. “They can also provide transportation.”
     Traci says her family has always been there for her, but Traci says you cannot always use your family as a crutch.
     “You have to recognize your limitations as a person with disabilities,” Traci said. “You must make yourself work ready.”
     Traci now works at the Job Readiness Training (JRT), a warehouse in Charleston that trains and gives clients experience in the workforce. Traci says employers who want to build an inclusive workforce must encourage teamwork.
     “Everybody working on the same page means assigning people to different jobs based on their skills,” Traci said. “An inclusive workforce is something that’s stressed here at JRT.”
     Employers can also make job responsibility clearer and precise, according to Traci.
     “They can match people with disabilities with what that job requires,” Traci said. “And they can search (for qualified people with disabilities) at places like SCVRD or make it policy to include people with disabilities.”
Teamwork – a win-win for all
     Joel, Netrolua and Traci show what happens when people with disabilities, their families, SCVRD and employers do what they can do to create an inclusive workforce.
     For Joel, being included in Cracker Barrel’s workforce means he’s now a contributing part of the community, something Lois thinks is very important for her son.
     “Being a contribution to something bigger than you are is so important,” Lois said. “People want clean silverware when they sit down. That’s what Joel provides.”
     For Netrolua, being included in the workforce means she can put herself in the position to help others.
     At work, she just doesn’t do her job — she volunteers to do more than her job calls for.
     “If my boss has a job to do, I’ll help her out,” Netrolua said. “I schedule interviews and set appointments up for her, even though that’s not part of my job.”
     For Traci, being included in the workforce means she’s realized she can do anything if she puts her mind to it.
     She’s opened her eyes to see what she’s capable of doing, even with a disability. She now understands what a true disability is.
     Her family, SCVRD and her employer pushed and motivated her to succeed.
     “I thought my life was over until I went to Voc Rehab,” Traci said. “If I wouldn’t have gone to Voc Rehab, I would have died from doing drugs.”
     Joel’s mother, Netrolua and Traci all agree that including people with disabilities in the workforce is a win-win for the employers, the workers and America.
     And Joel’s mother, Netrolua and Traci agree that families, SCVRD and employers can give people with disabilities opportunities for education, life, and employment and help them discover their strengths in ways that are unimaginable.