Skills That Pay the Bills

IOL vocational training program helps clients build confidence to return to the work force

Just the thought of asking a boss questions about what he should be doing at his job made Kevin so uncomfortable he wouldn’t apply for the job in the first place.

“It’s better to ask questions than make a mistake, but I wouldn’t have been able to do that before,” he said in a room off of the Institute of Living (IOL) Gift Shop, where he has been working a few hours a week for about six months.

He is not alone, according to Patricia Wardwell, a vocational therapist with the Department of Psychiatric Vocational Services who works with Kevin as part of his participation in the Work Skills Training Program. She described the program as a supportive employment opportunity created to help IOL clients ease into the workforce while seeking treatment.

“Some workers just need to develop confidence before pursuing community employment. Others need to practice social skills or work on strategies to become successful at work. Sometimes, just having a little bit of success can give someone the self-confidence to take that next step towards working in the community, something they would not attempt without it,” said Tammy Petrik, a vocational counselor with the program.

Program Manager Laura Mathews said there are three work sites on the IOL property that employ clients. In addition to the gift shop – where Kevin waits on customers, stocks shelves and prices and sorts item – Psychiatric Vocational clients work in the seasonal greenhouse, growing vegetables and herbs from seed and then selling them on campus, and in the cafeteria where they work with employees and visitors, as well as in the back washing dishes and preparing food.

The staff works with the clients to train them and offer insight into real work experience in a safe, encouraging environment,” Mathews explained. “For many clients, it’s the first paid work experience, while others need the support and guidance to reenter the job market.”

On average, there are 20 vocational employees working across the three sites at any time. Employees come from various outpatient and residential programs at the IOL. There are also opportunities for students of the Grace Webb School to earn credit for working.

According to Wardwell, in order to participate in the program clients must continue to see their IOL clinician at least weekly to ensure an open line of communication for best outcomes. In some of the clinical programs, a vocational counselor also provides vocational groups for additional support and education about job-related issues. The collaboration of vocational and clinical staff helps clients reach their goals.

For the 25-year-old Kevin, who lives on the IOL campus and attends an outpatient program, working in the gift shop is helping him progress toward plans to work off campus, perhaps in a grocery store because he enjoys stocking shelves, and eventually go to college.

“We always keep in mind to meet clients where they are, to create the just right challenge to start” Wardwell says. “We stress two things above all else – ask lots questions and try your best.”

But Kevin has gained more skills than that in just a short time.

“I can count on Kevin to complete all tasks required to run the gift shop,” Wardwell noted. “He’s very independent and has gained a great sense of confidence and self-esteem in the work place.”

A few days after he started as an associate, she said challenges – such as having a new supervisor on site when he arrived – were introduced. Such challenges help mimic real work environments to prepare him for competitive employment.

Kevin was unflustered, however, and noted that, “I try new tasks and try to figure things out for myself.”

In the program, and with the help of community agencies such as Easter Seals, clients also create a resume and receive valuable help applying for positions beyond the hospital setting. The result has been up to an 80-percent success rate for those seeking and maintaining jobs in the community, which earned the department a HHC Full Circle Award.

Seton Benjamin of Hartford has been working long enough in a job at an area Staples that she was promoted to a managerial position. Hospitalized at the IOL for 10 months in 2018, she worked in the gift shop then the dish room at the cafeteria.

“The work was tailored to what I could do,” the 28-year-old said. “I started only one day a week because I was in an intensive outpatient program to work on my crippling anxiety, borderline personality disorder and bipolar disease.”

The Psychiatric Vocational program helped prepare her to return to the work force, even though she had been unemployed for more than a year.

“They set me up properly to determine what I needed and didn’t need so I would be able to work,” she said.