The Power of Hope
Human Resources Unlimited Has Been Supplying It for 40 Years
For four decades, Human Resources Unlimited has been debunking myths about people with disabilities and helping such individuals become part of the local workforce. As the agency marks its milestone, it reflects on a solid track record of success, but, more importantly, looks ahead, toward developing strategies for doing what it does even better.
Like many people across Western Mass., John Gullotti is looking for work — and not having much luck finding it.
But unlike most of those perusing the want ads and sending résumés to companies across the region, Gullotti is confronting much more than a lingering recession and wariness among many employees to make additions to the workforce as he carries out his search.
For starters, he’s hindered by a résumé that shouts that he is overqualified for some of the entry-level, minimum-wage positions he’s seeking; he has a bachelor’s degree and experience, some of it in management, with many national retailers. And then, there’s the 12-year gap on that résumé, which includes a five-year span during which he was simply too afraid to leave the house.
That fear was a byproduct of the deep depression and paranoia that Gullotti was diagnosed with years ago, and has been battling ever since.
And maybe because of his progress in that fight, especially in recent years, Gullotti has something in abundance that many job seekers have all but run out of: hope.
His large supply of that commodity comes mostly through his association with Human Resources Unlimited (HRU) — a private, nonprofit agency — and, more specifically, a program, or facility, called Lighthouse. There, Gullotti and dozens of other developmentally disadvantaged individuals are trying to enter or re-enter the workforce and thus connect with the community around them.
Providing hope and making connections to the community are not the official missions of HRU, but they might as well be, said Don Kozera, its long-time president, noting that, as the agency turns 40, it is not merely celebrating four decades of carrying out those assignments, but also looking ahead, toward creating ways of continuously doing what it does better.
And perhaps what the agency does best, said Kozera, is help debunk many of the myths or misperceptions about people with disabilities, while also helping members like Gullotti realize that they can do things that others say that they can’t, and that they themselves might believe they can’t do.
“It was believed that people with developmental disabilities couldn’t work with equipment or couldn’t work in outside businesses, or could only handle repetitive work, so that became our battle cry,” said Kozera, noting that, over, the years, HRU has accomplished that mission through programs and businesses it has created or acquired, which ranged from a printing shop to a restaurant to a packaging outfit. But it’s also done it by placing members in jobs with area companies.
Created in 1970 to be the vocational training center for Belchertown State School residents and provide employment opportunities for residents of the facility, HRU, known then as the Carval Workshop, has expanded and evolved over the years. It now offers a broad range of services, from assistance for individuals transitioning from public assistance to the workplace to a ‘day habilitation’ program called Pyramid for people with developmental disabilities; from a commercial division known as Custom Packaging to four so-called ‘clubhouses’ (more on that term later) — Lighthouse, Star Light, Forum House, and Trade Winds.
With most all of these programs, there is one common thread that has defined HRU since the beginning — putting people, or members, to work.
Since he first came to Lighthouse, rather reluctantly and with great doubt about whether it would help him in any way, Gullotti has worked in what’s known as a transitional employment (TE) position as a receptionist with the state Department of Mental Health. Later, he worked in a supportive employment position handling calls to First Response from business owners impacted by the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Over the past few months, he has continued his search for independent work, and while he’s had just one actual interview, he remains upbeat and believes that, overall, he’s in a much better place than he was when he first walked in the door at 1401 State St.
“I’m able to deal with different situations that I never could before,” he explained. “Hope … that’s been the strongest piece. I have seen results that, even if they’re small, allow me to push on.”
For this issue, BusinessWest takes an indepth look at HRU as it celebrates its milestone, and, while doing so, weaves in in Gullotti’s thoughts and experiences to show what this agency does and how it does it, and maybe quantify and qualify the sheer power of hope.
Kozera was teaching a little, coaching soccer, and working toward his MBA at American International College when he applied for the job of fiscal director of the Carval Workshop in 1980.
“I saw 120 people sitting around with no work in front of them,” he recalled, “and I thought to myself, ‘I can’t mess this up any more than it already is.’”
So he took the job, while going to school at night — but with the expectation that it would be little more than a line on a resume. Instead, it’s become his life’s work — and very much a work still in progress.
And when one visits ETS Career Services and Custom Packaging, two programs that are essentially the current incarnations of Carval Workshop, there are dozens of people with plenty of work in front of them.
Those initiatives and their growth patterns are emblematic of how HRU has expanded well beyond its humble roots and evolved over 40 years, and especially Kozera’s tenure, which started in 1980.
Today, HRU has several components, including:
• Workforce Alternatives, which helps transition individuals from public assistance to the workplace through job-readiness skills, placement assistance, and ongoing support;
• Pyramid, a ‘day habilitation’ program that provides a caring environment in which individuals with developmental disabilities can enhance their physical, mental, and social competencies;
• ETS (Employment Training Support) Career Services, which provides individuals who are disadvantaged or have developmental or other disabilities with opportunities to increase their vocational skills and find meaningful work. Participants handle work ranging from light assembly to sorting gift cards bound for the Final Markdown;
• Custom Packaging, HRU’s commercial division that provides customers, including Olympic Manufacturing and other area employers, with services including hand assembly, heat sealing, shrinkwrapping, folding, collating, and mailing; and
• The four clubhouses, which help transition members, who join on a volunteer basis, to meaningful employment and, hopefully, independent employment.
Kozera said he doesn’t particularly like the word ‘clubhouse’ — he believes it conjures up images of children in tree forts — but he certainly likes the results these facilities have generated over the past half-century, and especially since they became part of the landscape in Western Mass.
The clubhouse model provides members with a supportive environment where they can get assistance with transitioning into the workplace or back into school as well as increasing their participation in the community.
Members work with staff to operate the clubhouse, said Kozera, adding that activities are designed to help members develop and hone critical vocational skills needed to succeed in the workplace. The facilities then help members transfer the skills and capabilities learned at the clubhouse to real jobs in the community. Over the years and decades, a number of area companies have stepped forward to provide such jobs.
That list of more than 120 business partners includes large regional or national retail chains, such Big Y, Friendly’s, CVS, A.J. Wright, Burger King, and others, but also such wide-ranging local businesses as WGBY and Berkshire Service Experts.
Each member of a clubhouse receives a comprehensive vocational assessment that identifies training and job-placement priorities, as well as preferences. Members are also provided with career counseling, interview-skills training, résumé writing, and job-search assistance, as needed.
Once a member is placed in a transitional or competitive employment job, clubhouse staff members continue to provide ongoing support for work-related and personal issues, said Kozera, adding that the goal with most members is to move them into independent employment after a specified period.
It was into this world that Gullotti walked about 18 months ago.
Seeing the Light
He told BusinessWest that it was his therapist who first suggested that he become a member of Lighthouse, thinking that its group setting would help him gain the needed confidence and inspiration needed to move his life forward and gain meaningful employment.
Gullotti agreed to give it a try, but did not share his therapist’s optimism, to say the least.
“I remember that my first impression of the place was that I couldn’t wait to see my therapist again and tell him that I thought he needed more help than I did,” said Gullotti with a laugh, adding quickly that with each visit he was getting more comfortable, while also learning and gaining inspiration from those around him.
Jeff Trant, program director at Lighthouse and Gullotti’s mentor since the day he walked in the door, said he is representative of the people who come to that facility — but also atypical in at least one respect: he wants to work, to be independent.
“He wants to get off of disability benefits,” Trant explained. “Many people are so polarized, they’re afraid that if they go back to work they’ll lose those benefits. John doesn’t want them; he wants to be independent and self-sufficient, and that’s an anomaly these days, because we have such a disability-entitlement culture.”
But it took Gullotti several weeks to get comfortable at Lighthouse, said Trant, adding that, at the beginning, he was overwhelmed by the situation he found himself in, and, in most all ways, simply not ready to join the workforce.
“It took a while for him to get really get comfortable, but once he got past that threshold and over that barrier of going into this place called Lighthouse, he found it extremely liberating,” said Trant. “You could almost see him relax once he got in and saw what this place was.”
A seminal moment in Gullotti’s progression came roughly a month after he arrived, when he was given a transitional employment assignment with the Department of Mental Health as a administrative assistant and receptionist. This was another transition that had some rough moments, but eventually, as he did with Lighthouse, Gullotti found a comfort zone and made it progressively larger.
“I remember having some impromptu counseling sessions with John in the early days when he would come back in tears,” said Trant. “He was so emotionally overwhelmed, and his confidence and his self-perception were so low that he didn’t think he was worthy and able to work.
“But very slowly, as he found his office colleagues were supportive and receptive, he went from doing the simple nuts and bolts of the job — answering the phone, sorting mail, and greeting people as they came in the door — to doing some very high-end projects that some of their more seasoned staffers would handle; he became a go-to person in that organization.”
The confidence he gained at DMH, coupled with ongoing support from family and both staff and members at Lighthouse, gave Gullotti what Trant called the “gusto” to move on to not only the next step employment-wise — a temporary position arranged through Johnson & Hill Staffing handling with Innovations First Notice — but also other platforms through which he could connect with the community.
“Here’s someone who, a few years earlier, wouldn’t leave his room,” said Trant. “Now, John is out speaking in front of Rotary clubs with me. He shares his story of hope and recovery, and he’s spoken in front of groups of more than 100 people. To me, that is so telling about how far he’s come and how much insight he has.”
There have been many success stories scripted by Lighthouse and the other clubhouses within HRU, as the walls within Lighthouse attest. There are pictures of members and former members in work settings and wall charts indicating current assignments and who has them.
Moving forward, Kozera said those at HRU want to make this 40th anniversary a time of celebration, obviously, but also a time for introspection, looking at programs, and developing a strategic initiative that will ultimately yield more pictures for the walls and more stories of individual triumph over adversity.
The company has always been focused on continuous improvement and the ‘good to great’ philosophy, said Kozera, but he wants the current milestone to spark an even deeper commitment to reach higher and, ultimately, put more members in jobs and have them thrive in those positions.
“We have a whole new level to get to,” he explained. “We have every accreditation in the world — national, international, state, and we get the highest ratings in all of those. But we don’t feel that we’re even close to the level we need to be at.”
To get to where it wants to go to go, HRU will continue to observe not only similar programs in other parts of the state and the country, but also businesses across myriad sectors and educational institutions, and “steal shamelessly,” as Kozera put it, when it comes to best practices and concepts it can apply.
In other words, the agency intends to be innovative, in the strictest definition of the word.
“Over the years, innovation has rarely been someone creating something brand-new,” he explained. “What they do is, they take a process, product, or system in one industry, and they tweak it and apply it to another system, and all of a sudden, it’s new.
“If you look at the iPhone and the iPad, these are things that are conglomerations of things that already existed; they’re just packaged in a different way,” he continued, adding that he wants HRU to continue innovating in that same fashion, again with the simple, overarching goal of putting people in the workplace.
And to achieve continuous improvement in that realm, Kozera and his staff will be focusing on the two agency’s two core functions — job preparation and job placement.
With regard to the latter, Kozera recently brought in some sales executives and sales-training professionals to work with and motivate those at HRU who are essentially selling job placements to area companies, thus creating opportunities for members like Gullotti.
“Most sales professionals are motivated by money, but the people who end in our industry are motivated by mission,” he explained. “Someone has to tie what your job is to the mission. So what we were able to do is bring in the sales principles, the sales discipline, and the sales structure, but then have individuals who have passion for what they do — because that’s why they’re in this industry and equate that there’s nothing more critical than them making a phone call and ultimately making a sale.
“It doesn’t matter how much you job train,” he continued, “if you don’t have a job waiting for you at the end of your job training.”
Meanwhile, on the job-preparation side of the ledger, HRU is working to make individuals better able to get and keep the jobs sold by the sales team. And at the heart of these efforts will be an initiative to be launched in January called “Changing Habits and Transforming Lives.”
It will take a number of proven principles not typically applied to job training and put them together for that purpose, said Kozera, noting that, collectively, individuals with disabilities mirror society in general, which means that many are obese and do not have the stamina to be employed, while others may lack the work ethic to obtain or keep a position. So HRU will be focused on those areas and others to help members become more workplace-ready.
As just one example, he cited exercise and its ability to help people focus.
“Exercise is really Miracle-Gro for learning,” he explained. “If you have an exercise routine, for up to four hours after that routine, you have the ability to take in information better, faster, quicker.
“There are schools around the country that are implementing this,” he continued. “I traveled to Naperville, Ill., and visited a school where they’re not cutting gym, like everyone else; they’re looking to expand it. Now, whatever your hardest subject is, you have gym right before that. And the results are amazing.”
The challenge for HRU will be to take some of these proven methods and repackage them to benefit members and meet the agency’s primary mission to get people employed, he told BusinessWest.
“The bottom line is get people to fit in,” he concluded, stating HRU’s reason for being in still another way. “That’s the number-one issue to getting people employed and keeping them employed — they get along with others, and they fit in.”
Getting the Message
As part of its 40th-anniversary celebration, HRU will stage a breakfast at the Sheraton in downtown Springfield on Oct. 26. The keynote speaker will be Troy Brown, former New England Patriots wide receiver and integral part of three Super Bowl-winning teams.
His talk is expected to center around his ability to defy the odds and rise to stardom in the NFL when few thought he would.
That message should resonate with an audience of HRU administrators, staff members, business partners, and business and civic leaders, who have helped enable the agency to permit others to beat long odds against them.
People like John Gullotti, who both understand and help create the power of hope.
George O’Brien can be reached
at [email protected]