Kessler Foundation Commemorates Veterans Day through Funding Disability Employment Initiatives
WEST ORANGE, N.J.—On Veterans Day, Kessler Foundation highlights its programs that improve employment outcomes for veterans with disabilities.
"Our men and women risked their lives for us," said Rodger DeRose, president and chief executive officer of Kessler Foundation. "Many return with traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and mobility impairments including spinal cord injury. After all of their sacrifices, it's our duty to ensure that they have the resources they need to find employment and feel independent and self-sufficient."
In 2011, Kessler Foundation awarded a $30,000 Community Employment Grant to the G.I. Go Fund in Newark, N.J. The G.I. Go Fund helps veterans, including many with disabilities, find resources, housing and employment. Kessler Foundation worked with the G.I. Go Fund to develop an innovative approach to expanding job opportunities. With Kessler Foundation grant, the G.I. Go Fund created a work-at-home training and employment option for veterans with disabilities.
“When applying for the grant, we weren’t thinking of a work-at-home option,” said Jack Fanous, executive director of the G.I. Go Fund. “Kessler Foundation had the foresight to guide us in that direction and we just executed their vision. The program has been so successful that it has expanded to other cities and Fortune 500 companies are adopting U.S.-based call centers staffed by veterans with disabilities."
Through the grant, veterans developed their resumes, received training in delivering customer service from the home environment and were mentored through the early stages of employment. Fifty veterans with disabilities were hired in work-at-home customer service positions at PSE&G, SetFocus and Johnson & Johnson. In fact, when Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast, 30 home-based veterans from the G.I. Go Fund were part of the team of customer service representatives at PSE&G working for PSE&G, working around the clock until power was restored.
In 2012, Kessler Foundation awarded a $25,000 Community Employment Grant to PRIDE Industries to provide training and employment supports to help people with severe disabilities, including veterans, secure employment in skilled trades positions at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst (JB-MDL). Under the grant, PRIDE—a nonprofit organization that provides manufacturing and facilities services to businesses and government agencies nationwide—hired 37 individuals with disabilities. Veterans with various conditions found job security and self-sufficiency.
According to PRIDE Rehabilitation Counselor Samantha Gralla, veterans are often overlooked by civilian employers because they may have shorter resumes that only include the duties of their last rank. Compound a short resume with a disability and it becomes even more difficult to find employment.
“Ability, aspiration and a desire to contribute are common to all of us – opportunity is not,” said Gralla. “PRIDE believes in the ‘power of purpose.’ We all have abilities. We took the time to talk with veterans and discovered that their responsibilities in the military corresponded with high level positions in our company. From the moment we offer that person a position, we benefit immediately. Veterans provide a skill set that cannot always be documented on a resume. Leadership, work ethic, loyalty to a company and professionalism are just some of the qualities that veterans offer to employers. We trusted them to protect our freedom; we can surely trust them as employees.”
SGT. John Irwin benefitted from his experience at PRIDE Industries and advanced in his career. After three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, he returned home with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. His bravery earned him an Army Commendation Medal with “V” (Valor) device and a Purple Heart. He had difficulty adjusting to civilian life, overcoming obstacles to find employment and finding a way to provide for his wife and three children.
In 2010, Kessler Foundation awarded a $450,000 Signature Employment Grant to launch Project Connect, a collaborative effort of Jewish Employment and Vocational Service (JEVS), Jewish Vocational Services and Tip of the Arrow Foundation, a volunteer organization staffed mostly by veterans. Through Project Connect, veterans undergo a rigorous vocational assessment to determine their skills and interests. Career counselors may recommend skills training or an internship. Lastly, Project Connect makes connections between veterans and employers who have employment opportunities that closely align with each individual’s abilities and interests.
For SGT. Irwin, Project Connect helped him land his job with PRIDE Industries. Project Connect assisted with interview preparation, discussing potential questions and coaching him on how to keep his answers concise—a common struggle for individuals with brain injury. Hired as service order dispatcher, he successfully applied skills learned in the military. Soon, he was promoted to training instructor, where he trained employees with disabilities and provided ongoing support.
Now, he is the Veterans Field Representative for Congressman Pallone's (D-6) office, where he informs veterans of their benefits, directs them to resources and ensures their needs are met. SGT. Irwin was one of 55 veterans who found employment through Project Connect.
“Once I started working again, my emotions and self image changed,” he said. “I came to the realization that we all have it in us to overcome our obstacles. We are warriors and the best our country has to offer. We swear an oath that we will never leave a fallen comrade behind. For me, that does not change when the uniform comes off.”
About Kessler Foundation
Kessler Foundation, a major nonprofit organization in the field of disability, is a global leader in rehabilitation research that seeks to improve cognition, mobility and long-term outcomes, including employment, for people with neurological disabilities caused by diseases and injuries of the brain and spinal cord. Kessler Foundation leads the nation in funding innovative programs that expand opportunities for employment for people with disabilities. For more information, visit KesslerFoundation.org.