By Joanne Rego, Support Employment Network Coordinator

It is amazing the treasures that you find when preparing for a move. Such was the case when sorting through the many boxes and files that the Supported Employment Network Program accumulated for over 30 years. Old photos, article and letters tell the remarkable story of this SouthCoast Chamber’s Supported Employment Network Program.

The Supported Employment Network Program was an idea that was developed in 1987 by a group of interested professionals who worked with individuals with developmental disabilities. This group included the office of the Department of Developmental Services. DDS approached The One SouthCoast Chamber with a proposal to form a partnership between the two agencies. This partnership created a new and innovative approach to creating job opportunities for people with developmental disabilities.

Since its inception, the Chamber’s Supported Employment Network has been molded and changed in many different ways in order to meet the needs of the people it served. Over the years, the Supported Employment Network not only addressed the needs of the job seekers, but also provided a valuable resource for chamber members who were looking to hire trained, skilled and capable employees.

The One SouthCoast Chamber’s Supported Employment Network proved to be a uniquely designed and successful program like no other program within any Chamber of Commerce in this country. The One SouthCoast Chamber’s achievements did not go unnoticed. Its outstanding accomplishment has led to not only state recognition, but also led to recognition within the United States and most astounding is that the program has received worldwide recognition.

In 2000, The One SouthCoast Chamber received recognition and an award at the ADA 10 year celebration ceremony in Boston, Massachusetts. In 2005, hte SouthCoast Chamber was listed in the United States Department of Labor’s guide and handbook for employers throughout the country who hire employees with disabilities. Our Chamber was listed as the STAR program when it came to practices and procedures to promote hiring people with disabilities. The Chamber’s Supported Employment Network was also highlighted in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s newsletter for its outstanding program.

One of the Supported Employment Network’s most fascinating experiences was meeting with representatives from Rotary Russia. The committee from Russia was given a presentation on The One SouthCoast Chamber’s Supported Employment Network Program’s history and accomplishments which included showing the committee the video that the Network had developed “Supported Employment: Make It Work for You.” The Russian committee was so impressed with the message in the video that they were determined not to leave unless the Network gave them a copy of the video. This was a request that the Network was pleased to accommodate. The Russian committee’s plan was to show the Network’s video and its progressive services for people with disabilities at large conferences throughout Russia including in big cities like Moscow, Siberia, Saint Petersburg and Novosibirsk.

Throughout the years, in addition to developing the Supported Employment video, the Network committee also developed a brochure, participated in a UMass Center for Marketing Research survey, met with a mayor and gave panel discussions and presentation at seminars. The Southcoast Supported Employment Network hosted an annual information session for the Greater New Bedford community titled “Social Security and Working: How it Effects Social Security Benefits”. The Supported Employment Network also had a regular column call Enterprising Minds in The One SouthCoast Chamber’s Focus newsletter. Articles often highlighted success stories of employees with disabilities who were working in the community, skilled job seekers with disabilities and stories that inspired reader about the many benefits of hiring a skilled, talented and loyal employee with disabilities.

Most recently, there were some individuals who stood out because of their outstanding accomplishments.

-Reece Arnold from Better Community Living, Inc. is a gifted musician who was hired by various members of the chamber to provide musical entertainment at their social events. Reece was hired by The One SouthCoast Chamber to play music at the Member Appreciation event and also at the APEX Awards Reception.

-Chris Mercer from Lifestream, Inc. was hired by Donald Giumetti proprietor of Shepard Group, Inc. after Giumetti read an article in Enterprising Minds indicating that Chris was looking for employment, Giumetti said to himself, “I’m want to hire that guy.” The two continue to banter and share their love for sports in between performing job duties.

-Katie Brienzo from M.O .Life, Inc. was a unique and inspirational young woman. Ms. Brienzo was tragically killed at only 29 years old but had accomplished so much in her short life. Prior to her death she had been successfully employed at the New Bedford Economic Development Office, Stop and Shop and Market Basket. Katie was also the founder of “HOPES and DREAMS” and advocacy group for people with disabilities. Following her death, Katie was recognized by various groups for her accomplishments in life including an award from APSE in Washington D.C. In 2012 Katie was given the “Inspirational Person of the Year” Award from the New Bedford Standard Times. Additionally, each year an outstanding person with disabilities is given an award in memory of Katie at the annual M.O. Life Gala. This award is called the Katie Brienzo Lifetime Achievement Award.

These outstanding individuals are just a few of the hundreds of talented people with disabilities in our community who have enriched a local business by being a part of the company’s successful work team.

Hats off! to our chamber members who have hired an employee with disabilities. You already know it is a wise decision. Participating in supported employment has always been good for business. The One SouthCoast Chamber is proud to have been a remarkable benefit to helping people with disabilities find meaningful employment in our community.

If you are interested in hiring a person with disabilities please call Better Community Living, Inc. at 508-999-4300, Lifestream, Inc. at 508-991-4840, or M.O.Life, Inc. at 508-992-5978.