Pioneering a Trail Toward Meaningful Work

Finding meaningful employment isn’t always straightforward, especially for individuals with disabilities. In McHenry County, a beacon of support is helping thousands to find their purpose.

Tim Ghera, a dietary aide at White Oaks at McHenry, can’t help but smile as he washes dishes in the kitchen. He’s just one of many individuals living with a disability in northern Illinois who have landed a meaningful job with the help of Pioneer Center for Human Services, in McHenry.

Tim Ghera radiates a passion for his work. He traverses the corridors confidently and elicits smiles and laughter from his colleagues. As a dietary aide at White Oaks at McHenry, Ghera infuses warmth and positivity into his daily interactions with the residents of this memory care community.

“Hey Jimmy,” he says as he fists bump a resident and then adds, “He’s one of my favorites.”

Ghera’s smile lights up the room as he clears dinner tables and washes dishes. Clad in his apron, he’s approached his duties with diligence and joy since landing the job last year.

However, it wasn’t always smooth sailing for Ghera. Somewhat shy, he’s worked at other places where he felt bullied and struggled to voice his concerns.

It’s a common theme among adults with disabilities, mental health challenges and substance abuse.

Because they experience the world differently, it’s not uncommon for this population to struggle with getting and keeping gainful employment. Only about 22.5% of disabled adults were employed last year, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Thanks to a little help from Pioneer Center for Human Services, 4301 W. Dayton St., in McHenry, thousands of people with disabilities are gaining independence and meaningful employment in northern Illinois. Through vocational training, job coaching and ongoing support, the private nonprofit organization pairs up local employers with individuals who have disabilities. The result is a guiding force for people in Kane, Cook, McHenry and Lake counties who seek self-sufficiency and dignity.

Hamilton “Tip” Hale is part of the team at Pioneer Center that helps to connect adults with disabilities and local employers that will help those adults to succeed.

“Making people independent is something I fell in love with,” says Hamilton “Tip” Hale, current employment services manager at Pioneer Center. “It makes you feel good when you wake up in the morning that you’re going to do something good for somebody.”

Pioneer Center offers an array of services, including residential support, counseling and community integration activities, all designed to nurture independence and dignity among a challenging population. For those who engage with this unique employment program, the results are truly life-changing.

One client found her passion when she landed a job at Walmart, where her warm demeanor and strong work ethic earned her a promotion.

“We got her a job at Walmart as a greeter, which was perfect because she had a nice smile,” says Hale. “She of course wanted more, and I told her Walmart’s a good place to work because they have so many different departments and you can move from one department to the other once you’ve proven yourself. About four years later, I went into that Walmart to buy something, and I was in line at the register and there she was cashiering. That was her dream job.”

When a new client arrives at Pioneer Center, they’re assigned to a dedicated job developer. A comprehensive assessment helps the developer to understand the client’s strengths, preferences and career aspirations. Through face-to-face interactions, they collaborate to build skills and vocalize their interests.

The journey may include developing or refining a resume and emphasizing relevant skills and experiences. Client and developer also work on essential job-seeking skills such as interviewing techniques and communication – particularly when it comes to vocalizing their abilities and strengths, and advocating for any supports they might need.

This population faces several challenges in the workplace, not just with societal stigmas, but also with inadequate accessibility, a reliable means of transportation and job acclimation.

To ensure they succeed, Pioneer Center’s team works to overcome as many barriers as possible, starting with the “soft skills” that make good employee.

“With some of the younger people, it’s teaching them work ethic – how to deal with your coworker, how to deal with your boss, how to stay off your phone, how to get to work on time and stay on time and on task,” says Hale.

Older clients may enter the job market after experiencing a disability or a life-altering situation. These individuals are more likely to struggle with confidence and adapting to new circumstances, so the key is to help them find their passion, says Hale.

“They may have had a job but then had a traumatic brain injury or mental health issue, so we make them comfortable, give them their confidence back, show them they can do it again on their own and then it kind of clicks,” he says. “That light comes back on and they’re ready to go.”

Once they’ve landed a job, Pioneer Center remains committed to a smooth transition into the workplace. Job coaches help clients to feel comfortable and confident in their roles, which promotes long-term success and job retention. Hale and the team make sure clients know they’re available whenever a little help is needed.

“It’s like riding a bike with training wheels,” says Hale. “Somewhere along the line, hopefully soon, we’re going to take those training wheels off and you’re going to ride by yourself and have a good time at it. But if you hit a pothole and something happens or you get nervous again, we’ll come and put those training wheels back on and go through the process again.”

Pioneer Center receives more than 100 annual referrals from the Illinois Department of Rehabilitation and has a success rate of 90%, says Hale. Such success rides on the strength of community partnerships with employers like Jewel-Osco, Walmart, Meijer, Home Depot and Goodwill, where you’ll find Pioneer Center clients happily at work. White Oaks at McHenry became a partner in 2021.

“Toward the end of the pandemic, a lot of people were getting out of health care, so we were struggling to find people who wanted to work,” says Debbie France, director of nursing and executive director at White Oaks at McHenry, 4605 W. Crystal Lake Road, in McHenry. “I knew of Pioneer Center and their great reputation and what they did with residents who have disabilities. So, I reached out to them and got in contact with Tip and told him we were looking for dietary aides.”

Ghera is one of three people from Pioneer Center who’ve found work at White Oaks as a dietary aide. They might clear tables after meals and wash dishes, or they might serve drinks and meals. Their specific duties are tailored to their abilities and preferences, which helps each person to thrive.

“We assess what they are capable of and where they feel comfortable working,” says Alexander Mann, dietary manager at White Oaks. “Tim prefers the back of the house, so he primarily handles dishwashing duties for two days.”

The partnership with White Oaks provides a job, but it also extends a pathway toward realizing one’s aspirations.

“We teach them there are long-term and short-term goals,” says Hale. “It’s stepping stones to get there.”

Ghera landed at White Oaks in 2023, though he’s been involved with Pioneer Center since 2005. He was ready to move on from his work at a local pizza place when Hale steered him toward White Oaks. Ghera still stays in touch, particularly when he needs help with the monthly trainings that are required of workers in dementia care.

The relationship is a win-win for workers, employers and Pioneer Center.

“It gives [workers] security knowing that if anything goes wrong there, they can call us,” says Hale. “It’s also the same with the employer. There have been several times when employers will call us because they’ve had good luck with the employees we’ve sent them.”

If you ask Ghera, he’s just happy he’s found a sense of purpose and a fulfilling means of earning a living.

“I’ve always wanted to work in a nursing home,” says Ghera. “I just enjoy being helpful to other people.”