Fundholder Helps Special Needs Adults Achieve Self-Sufficiency through Employment Horizons

February 6, 2013

employment for special needs adults - image of workerOne of Community Foundation’s fundholders wanted to explore ways he could use his fund to help special needs adults find employment and careers. The Foundation explored a number of different ideas, including providing direct subsidies for employers to employ special needs adults, to find the most effective way for the fundholder to help special needs adults. In the end what we learned is that while employers might respond to incentives to hiring people with disabilities, it was not in the way that would first come to mind. The maximum impact of a gift is not in providing outright cash incentives or subsidies to employers but in assuring that a potential special needs employee meets the employer’s needs — the employee’s skills are well matched to the requirements of the position, he/she is dependable, learns the job in timely fashion, exhibits good “soft” skills (also called work readiness or job keeping skills) and stays with the job.

This insight led the fundholder to make a sizable contribution to Employment Horizons, a non-profit organization that provides job counseling and placement. The funding has enabled the organization to place more special needs adults in jobs by expanding their staffing services, including underwriting the cost of drivers and career coaches who transport individuals to and from work during overnight and weekend hours as well as help them to acclimate to on-the-job responsibilities. As Employment Horizons Assistant Executive Director Mark Stephenson said, “This [donation] was like the knight in shining armor coming in and saving the situation for many people.”

Founded in 1957, Employment Horizons uses a three-step approach to help individuals with special needs achieve self-sufficiency — 1) pre-placement employment counseling, 2) intensive on-the-job coaching and 3) “follow-along” services to promote job retention. Many of the positions individuals enter such as photography laboratory specialist, pastry chef and child care assistant require work during hours when drivers and coaches are generally off-duty. According to Stephenson, the donor’s contribution makes it possible for people to “get the support they need where they need it and when they need it” by paying drivers’ and coaches’ salaries. “This grant addresses several major barriers to obtain and to maintain employment,” he said.

With operations across the state including in Essex, Morris, Passaic and Sussex Counties, Employment Horizons serves adults in their early-20s through their late-50s. It has become a go-to source for many employers who recognize and appreciate the counseling and ongoing support it offers to special needs adults.

“The real neat benefit is we’ve become very well-known to employers; we’re looked at as their screeners,” Stephenson said. “We do testing and job sampling where [employers] get to try out prospective applicants so both can decide if it’s a good match. We pay all wages, payroll tax and workers’ compensation insurance during this period, which could be one day or several weeks.”

Employers are consistently pleased with the organization’s services. So are the adults it helps to employ, many whose lives have changed because of the opportunity to work. One individual commented, “For the first time, I can be independent.” The donor’s contribution, which is now in its second year, has yielded significant results. This financial support has enabled Employment Horizons to staff more jobs available during odd hours, thereby getting more people employed. In just the first 15 months of support, Employment Horizons reported 24 new job placements and a 94% job retention rate in these overnight and weekend positions. Equally important, these kinds of pay-offs have had far-reaching, statewide impact. Last year, the people it placed in work earned $3.1 million and reduced their reliance on public assistance by almost $1 million.

“People who sustain employment have the dignity of being employed and really being a contributing, participating member of society,” said Stephenson. “The community at-large wins because people who were once reliant on tax support are now taxpayers.”

He continues to thank the Community Foundation fundholder for this individual’s generosity.

“Getting a job is fine, but if you don’t keep it, then so what? You haven’t brought people to self-sufficiency. For that, we are most grateful to this donor who is making a lasting difference in people’s lives by helping us to help them.”