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Lookout Mountain Community Services Seeks New Business Partners to Help Change Lives

A Lookout Mountain Community Services consumer stocks shelves at Old Mill General Store in Chickamauga.

 

Lookout Mountain Community Services is looking for local businesses in Dade, Walker, Catoosa and Chattooga counties to become part of its supported employment programs.

Headed by Becky Clark and Kevin Yount, the supported employment programs seek to find local jobs for LMCS’s developmentally disabled and mental health consumers, respectively.

That task, however, is much more easily said than done, explained Yount.

“Pretty much everyone knows who Lookout Mountain Community Services is, and that can be a good thing or a bad thing, because of the stigma attached to it,” he said. “We’re trying to break through that.”

Though Clark and Yount work with different types of consumers and use different models of assistance to help find the best placement for each person, their goals are the same: “If they want to work, we’re going to help them go to work,” Yount said.

Consumers who participate in the program develop a work ethic while simultaneously learning new skills and boosting their confidence, all of which lead to either a faster recovery or a better quality of life.

For instance, Kevin, 53, states " Supported employment is very helpful. I have never had a resume and now I do. Fellow consumer Teresa, 56, says the program “helps me with things I couldn't do on my own, like computers.”

Not only is work good for the consumer, who may have never before had the opportunity for gainful employment, but it benefits the businesses involved as well, Clark explained. She is constantly on the lookout for local jobs that consumers would be able to do for minimum wage, rather than whatever the business is now paying.

“We go into a company or a business and we’re looking for things,” she said, “trying to scope it out and see are there any jobs that I see people doing that look very simple that, instead of paying their $15 an hour people, this would be something we can do. A small group of us could come in. We could have an enclave. An enclave is a supervised small group of developmentally-disabled individuals. I’m looking for things like that that could possibly save the company money and provide jobs for us.”

One such job that she has identified and that she is hopeful will soon be made available to her consumers is that of a confidential document shredder at local banks; she already has the perfect person lined up for the task.

“I think I could save them $100 a month,” she said, “for them not having (name of prospect) to come and destroy their documents, because I have a non-reader. I can capitalize on the fact that somebody can’t read. She would not be a security risk at all to these people. She could come in a do it for two or three hours per week…and she would be so thrilled to make minimum wage. She’d be so happy to have a job at the bank. That would mean the world to her.”

Clark and Yount believe that local businesses may not know that the supported employment program is available, or may be operating under misconceptions about some of Lookout Mountain Community Services’ consumers.

Yount, especially, sees a lot of stigma surrounding perceptions of those consumers he works with who have some type of mental illness.

Lookout Mountain, however, carefully supervises and vets all its consumers in the supported employment program, and wants to help break down some of those overarching stigmas.

“We just want to let (local business owners) know that mental illness is a treatable disease,” said Yount. “And not necessarily because someone has a disability that they cannot work or they don’t want to work. They do. These people want to work very bad. It gives them something to look forward to during the day.”

Further exacerbating the stigma, some of the consumers have previously been incarcerated due to their mental illness, making employers even less likely to hire them.

“I work with people that have been in prison,” Yount said, “and they're out of prison trying to get back on their feet, and a lot of employers shy away from that and don't realize that there's programs out there, like federal bonding programs, that will back up these people in the event that something may happen. And usually, that's not the case. These people, they want to work like everybody else. They want another chance. And some of these people want jobs that other people just take for granted. I got a guy that I got a job where all he wants to do is just clean, be a janitor. That's all he's done, that's all he wants to do. And I got him a job working part-time and he's thrilled. That's the best thing going for him. It gets him out of the house.”

Lookout Mountain Community Services works hard to make sure that not only are consumers getting out and working, but they are doing something that they enjoy.

“We’re not pigeonholing them and just putting them in something that we think they can do,” Yount said. Instead, it’s all about consumer preference. “Nobody wants to work if they hate their job.”

The same rule applies on Clark’s side, too. “Before we sign them up and get them on a regular routine, we're letting them try some things,” said Clark. “So we try to match the individual's preference and abilities to the employer's need.”

“A lot of the employers,” Yount said, “they think that because they have a mental illness, they're going to be unstable, and they don't realize that I'm not going to give them somebody or take them somebody that's -- even though we have zero exclusion -- if they're in a manic state or in a psychotic state, I'm not going to bring them to an interview. They're going to be stable before they work.”

Furthermore, all supported employment consumers with Lookout Mountain Community Services are provided transportation and guaranteed to be on time.

“We contract with a transportation company so we always make sure our people are there at work. So they're always going to be reliable,” Clark said. “We make sure they get there.”

“We work not only with the consumer but also with the employer as well to make sure that all the needs are being met,” Yount said. “So we're not just giving somebody an application and sending them off to work. We stay with them as they work. It doesn't end with the job.”

Thankfully, the program already has a few understanding business partners, who so far have benefited from the supported employment program. Current partners include PMI, Old Mill Kettle Corn, Roper, Walgreens, Jackson Chevrolet and Chartwell’s dining service at Covenant College.

For some businesses that don’t have a full-time job opening, there are other options as well, such as the pre-vocational program, Clark explained.

“These are individuals who aren't quite ready yet to go out and get jobs in the community, but they still want to work. So it's more of a sheltered workshop,” she said.

The LMCS pre-vocational program for developmentally-disabled consumers is completely in-house work, she explained.

For instance, when Clark toured the PMI facility she noticed that the employees were frequently having to stop their work to assemble handles for the bags they were sewing. She saw an opportunity there for the program's consumers to help increase that business's productivity.

“We could put that handle together,” she said. “Some of our individuals that work very slowly, they have a lot of handicap inhibitions, but they can put that together. And so we're providing them with their handles, and that keeps their workers there sewing.”

Lookout Mountain Community Service consumers also run the Old Mill General Store in Chickamauga, the original home of Old Mill Kettle Corn.

“They had a general store where the popcorn used to be produced,” Clark said. “They grew so much and they expanded and so they moved off-site to do their production and that building just sat empty. ...We went and asked them if they would let us run the store. ...You sell our popcorn and we get all the money from the popcorn. But you sell anything else in that store and you get all the profits of it, and we'll pay the electricity and the rent and everything.

“So we run the store and it gives our people a chance to learn about stocking the shelves, even answering the phone. They learn about cleaning the store, so they're cleaning the windows and cleaning the bathroom and sweeping. We also make things. We've got four people working at the store every day.”

The store is open Wednesday through Friday from noon to 5 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

“We're selling things that they make. They've made cookies in a jar and they make the survival bracelets and they make some magnets.”

LMCS consumers will have a booth at the upcoming Music on the Square in LaFayette in May to sell their crafts and get the word out.

Clark is even hoping that the consumers can start offering toy-making and crafting classes at the Old Mill General Store this coming fall.

The program is incredibly grateful for its current business partners, but is always on the lookout for more.

Local businesses interested in learning more about the supported employment program are invited to come to the Cornerstone open house event May 16, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

To Clark, one of the most rewarding parts of her job is to see the change that comes upon her consumers when they finally feel as if they are a contributing member of society. “To see their faces. To see what happens to them that they're making money and that they're contributing,” she said. “They just love it. It means the world to them.”

“You can see just the change,” said Yount. “A guy I was working with was homeless. Now he's got a job, he's got a house. Just the change that's made just because somebody gave him a chance.”

“I think the main thing, the underlying message is, just because somebody has a mental illness or is developmentally disabled, they have the same needs and wants that we all do,” Yount said. “They all deserve a chance just the same. For people to begin to understand and to realize that, it benefits everyone. It keeps things local, and it just all-around helps out. It helps the community.”

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