DePaul Industries was founded in Portland in 1971 to provide employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
Its mission today remains the same, but the way the nonprofit conducts its business is much different.
DePaul closed its sheltered workshop and production line for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) in June 2016. By October 2016, 75 percent of the people in its services were working in integrated, community jobs (20 out of 25 people). Those who did not get community jobs through DePaul either went into services with other providers, or opted to retire.
Today, DePaul Industries has four arms of its business: staffing, security, a manufacturing sector that assembles knives and infant formula, and its Unified Workforce division, which provides Discovery, job development and job coaching services to people with I/DD.
CEO and President Travis Pearson charged Employment Director Harmony Redmond with making the shift, and figuring out a way to make community employment placements work for DePaul's business model. He credits Harmony's innovation and expertise in creating the DePaul model.
"We know community placements are essential, and DePaul's mission has always been about creating employment opportunities," he said. "I really gave Harmony the charge to do this, and she made the plan."
Harmony said her team started the process early. Many of their clients had worked at DePaul their entire adult lives, and the idea of community employment was scary and new. She started by taking them on field trips to businesses located near DePaul, letting them explore and talk to business owners and employees.
Her team also led classes on interviewing, resume building, and having conversations about what community employment would be like.
"We started slowly, having conversations about what community employment looks like, and planting the seed," Harmony said. "We wanted this to be something exciting, not something to cause anxiety."
DePaul's placements included jobs at Roundtable Pizza, Safeway and Amazon. Josh Boughton, 25, was one of those early placements. Josh's only work experience was at DePaul. Today, he works as an associate at a 7-11 store, stocking shelves, making coffee and keeping the store tidy.
Josh has autism and is mostly nonverbal. His job coach, Sherita Scott, said he helps on tasks that the employees at the register don't have time to do.
Josh's manager Rikki Emmett agreed.
"He makes the customers smile," Rikki said. "It's been a wonderful experience having him work here. I really think it's important that people with disabilities like Josh are out here (in the community) and interacting with everyone."
Harmony and her staff did not stop at those initial job placements. The organization now has more than 40 individuals in its services. She said when DePaul fully committed to making community employment part of its business model, she visited every single Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) counselor and brokerage in their service area to introduce herself and let them know DePaul was open for business.
"This is a business based on relationships, so I wanted VR counselors to know me, know my team, and understand our expertise," she said. "I had eight referrals immediately after I made those visits."
Harmony said there have been lessons learned. Four of the people they placed in jobs at a fast food restaurant lost their jobs after the minimum wage increased in July. Harmony started thinking about ways to create career-path jobs for people with I/DD that would have more stability.
"I started thinking, 'This is really an untapped market," she said. "We did a survey of VR counselors and brokerages and everyone to find out, 'Would you have individuals who would be interested in professional-track jobs?' And the result was overwhelming."
To solidify her commitment, Harmony hired Karl Rohde, a former DePaul production line manager who has experience as a lobbyist and business owner, in a new job developer role singularly focused on professional-track jobs for people with disabilities.
"It's a very different skill set than walking into a Burger King and asking to talk to the manager," Karl said. "There are layers of people to meet and network with – the Human Resource managers, department heads, and company leadership."
When asked if they had advice for other organizations looking to transform from sheltered or facility-based employment services to community-based placements, Harmony had this to say: "Choose your team wisely. Don't choose people who are like you, but choose people with different strengths and abilities."
Harmony continued: "One of my job developers is legally blind, and that not only gives her a different perspective, but also helps her understand the needs of those clients. We also have a bilingual job developer, and I understand we are one of only two in the area. Diversifying your business gives you new revenue streams and helps you see different perspectives."
Karl said his advice for job developers is to understand the business concerns and perspective.
"Fully research and understand the intricacies of employing people with disabilities so if you get questions on accommodations, or worker's compensation, you can answer and put their minds at ease," he said. "Be ready to talk about your job at any time, and network constantly."
As CEO and president, Travis said his job was to provide leadership and support for Harmony's team.
"I know a lot of the organizations going through this (transformation) are like us, they've been around 40, 50 years or longer," Travis said. "You have to think outside of the box. Expect this to look different – it has to look different. Let the leaders of your agency who know and understand this area (employing people with I/DD) lead the charge, and make sure they are business-minded."
Kathi Johnston was the VR counselor for Josh Boughton. Christina Robideau was the job developer and Sherita Scott is Josh's job coach. Josh's personal agent is Rob Peace with Independence Northwest.
View a photo slideshow of DePaul Industries and Josh at work.