By Jill Keech
A value-driven work environment. An appreciative boss. And at the end of the day, a paycheck.
“Our clients want those same values — that satisfaction of being productive,” says Lance Wright, president/CEO and co-founder of Wright Choices, Inc., which is celebrating 25 years of supported employment and vocational services to youth and adults with disabilities.
The for-profit corporation is an approved provider by the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS) and the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, providing an array of vocational services to persons with disabilities.
Wright Choices serves more than 400 clients a year; some 300 may be in a training stage, according to Wright. A new service called Pre-Employment Transitional Services (Pre-ETS) works with students with disabilities.
“I grew up in a household that really cherished people with difficulties and disabilities who needed help,” says Wright, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, who in addition to overseeing Wright Choices, owns Associated Counselors of Tidewater. He’s a former Hampton-Newport News Community Services Board job coach.
Wright Choices serves individuals with disabilities that include mental health issues, intellectual disabilities, autism, learning disabilities and physical disabilities.
The FY 2019 annual report lists 107 job placements among 49 employers hiring individuals with disabilities.
When Wright Choices’ Karen Conklin, a lead job coach, approaches a business to see if it’s hiring, she explains that she works with individuals with disabilities.
In seeking an appropriate job match, clients’ abilities, skills and interests are assessed on site. Once a hire is made, Conklin works with the employer’s staff on training.
A little more than two years ago, Conklin brought 23-year-old Noah Hughes-Butterfield and five other Wright Choices’ clients to Uncle Dave’s Kettle Korn at Peninsula Town Center in Hampton, where they interviewed.
“They all came in, and they were all dressed for the job,” says Alice Wilson, co-owner with her son, Ryland Wilson, of Uncle Dave’s in Hampton.
All six were hired.
“I don’t look at them as a person with a disability but as an employee with a job to do,” says Alice Wilson.
Ryland Wilson started the crew at more than minimum wage, with raises that have followed. “Who can live on minimum wage?” he had said to his mother.
“I do enjoy working there,” says Hughes-Butterfield, who mostly makes the popcorn flavors and also cleans and preps the cotton candy machine. He works about 10 hours a week and generally saves his earnings.
“Our individuals take pride in earning a paycheck,” says Conklin.
“Noah’s a good asset. He has come a long, long way from when we started,” Alice Wilson says. “We all are caring people. We meet people where the needs are.
“It’s a matter of showing and teaching them, of building their confidence…. We’ve never had any problems,” she says.
“Alice is a great lady,” says Conklin. “She gets it.”
Uncle Dave’s in Hampton is the recipient of a Champions of Disability Employment award from DARS.
Nearly 200 clients are in Wright Choices’ Follow-Along Services, with job coaches visiting the client’s workplace to ensure that there is job satisfaction for both client and employer.
“That’s the beauty of supportive employment,” says Wright, whose leisure time includes attending workshops and listening to books on tape on personal development and disability programming. “We’re always there.”
Conklin sees her role as laying the foundation for clients’ success.
“I know that Noah’s attained the ability to achieve and maintain employment,” she says. “That’s why I do my job. My individuals’ (clients’) accomplishments are my accomplishment.”
“Noah understands everything,” says Roshaun Brooks, an Uncle Dave’s manager. “He’s at the point he can just come in and do his work. He needs no supervision. And he does his job well.”
Primary funding for Wright Choices’ Supported employment and Pre-ETS come from DARS and a small amount of funds from the Medicaid Waiver program administered by the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.
It is not an act of charity to give someone with a disability a job, Wright stresses.
“They literally run our business the way we want it run,” Alice Wilson says of her Wright Choices’ hires. “Noah is truly a blessing to our store.”
“It makes me feel good to do something that makes a difference,” says Wright, who has three sons, one of whom has interned at Wright Choices and may want to follow in his father’s footsteps in human services work.
TO THE POINT:
Wright Choices, Inc.Address: 825 Diligence Dr., Ste. 201, Newport News, VA 23606
Contact: Lance Wright, LCSW, president/CEO and co-founder