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ferent and larger arena.
“Our focus is on employment, training, empower-
ment, and inclusion with people who have disabili- ties and other challenges and disadvantages,” she went on, “and that speaks very much to me, in the combination of capacity building and social-justice change.”
Fast-forwarding a little, she did enter what became a nationwide search for a permanent presi- dent and CEO, and prevailed through a series of interviews conducted virtually, which she described as a new and different experience — at least as the interviewee.
She arrived in November to a full plate of chal- lenges, including continuation of the daunting pro- cess of combining HRU and Community Enterprises into the larger entity that exists today, work that was in some ways slowed, and complicated, by both the passing of Venn and then the arrival of COVID.
“As I came on board, the organization that I am coming to know was ready to be on the other side of that transition,” she told BusinessWest. “And it would have been on the other side sooner had it not been interrupted by the grief and loss of Dick Venn, and had it not been for a pandemic.”
Elaborating, she said that what has been delayed has been the process of “breaking down the silos” within the organization. “You have a much larger organization in every way you can name — there’s more staff, many more programs and services, and in more geographic areas — and one that was con- tinuing to grow, not just as a result of the merger but because it’s part of the mission, vision, and value of the organization. It’s about silos, systems work, and some of the basic functional things, like IT.”
A big part of the process of leading the organiza- tion to that proverbial ‘other side’ is to do a lot of “lis- tening, watching, and learning,” she noted.
“You don’t walk into an organization like this one and think you know what you need to know,” she explained. “And I can say I’ve walked into an organi- zation of people who are very welcoming, very help- ful, who have lots to share, and who are deeply com- mitted to the mission. Our people show up because they believe in the work that they’re doing and the people they’re working with.”
The Job at Hand
Supporting and nurturing this staff is just one of the many priorities for Holmes moving forward — and is, in itself, a challenge.
“One of my larger concerns, and it’s one that’s cer- tainly shared, is the fact that human-service salaries are woefully inadequate to the jobs people do,” she explained. “Joining in advocacy efforts at the state level for eliminating the disparity in pay between community-based providers and state employees
who do substantially the same work is important. But it’s also important for us as an organization to prioritize our staff to the extent that the limitations of our largely state-funded dollars allow us to do. Continuing services and supporting our staff are real priorities.”
Another priority, of course, will be transitioning,
if that’s the right word, to a post-COVID world. Many staff members have been working remotely, she noted, and there are questions moving forward about how and where work will be carried out and even how much office space the agency may actually need in the short and long term.
And there are many factors to consider in making those decisions, she said.
“It comes down to how we most effectively sup- port the services and the staff members that are delivering the services,” she explained. “There might
“What I saw in this was an
opportunity to sort of test my skills
and challenge myself in a larger
be a natural tendency to say, ‘OK, there are certain positions that can be carried out remotely, so let’s just put all of them out and save that space.’ But it’s more complicated than that; human-services work is very collaborative. It’s teamwork, but more deeply than that, there is an environment of support that’s hard to come by when you’re not in contact with people, when people don’t see you walk through the hall and see you being a little more tired, a little more stressed than normal. In the kind of work we do, we need to pay attention to that.”
Meanwhile, there are those lessons learned and the new ways of doing things that came about out of necessity — and ingenuity.
“There was a brief period when staff needed to
switch to providing services remotely, and ... by golly, they did it,” Holmes told BusinessWest. “You get creative, and I’m sure we all have; you learn how to do some things differently, and you discover that the paradigm of how services are provided is turned on its head.
“That’s a new skill set we’ll carry forward, but it by no means replaces in-person services,” she went on, adding that, moving forward, the agency will look toward using the new skills and new technol- ogy, including virtual reality, to carry out its mission.
She noted that Viability is using virtual reality
to acclimate and train clients and members for job placements. “We started during the pandemic, and we’re very much in the testing and piloting stage,” she explained, adding that early results are very posi-
tive. “If you have folks who have autism or others who for various reasons are highly sensitive to chang- es in environment or to noises, or just to new experi- ences ... to be able to take a work environment and load it into a virtual-reality system so that people can safely explore and navigate that workspace without actually being there is very advantageous. It can lead to much smoother transitions.”
As for the employment programs, the ones that put thousands of individuals in jobs across this region and beyond, COVID prompted some busi- nesses to close and many others to slow down, said Holmes, adding that obvious question marks remain about when and to what extent business, and jobs, will pick up again.
“It is a concern as to how long the economic rebound takes, and if there continues to be a shortage of positions,” she said. “As is so often the case, people who are marginalized are pushed out first, so that is
a concern. But there are a number of employers we partner with who, through experience, will tell you the value of working with us, and that, when it comes to our members, their attendance is superior, and the quality of their work is at least on par.”
Past Is Prologue
Holmes has talked with many such employers over the years, so she understands those sentiments. She has, as she said at the top, come full circle when it comes to her career in human services.
But in most all respects, she is not coming back to where she was years ago. The landscape has changed in myriad ways and, thanks to COVID, it continues to change, each month and almost each week.
This is a different test, a sterner test, one she fully embraces. As she said, she’s excited about the oppor- tunities — for herself, but especially for those benefit- ing from Viability’s programs and services. u
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