Tom Elliott never knew he was a “people person” before he started working at the Aberdeen Safeway store as a courtesy clerk. As he bags groceries for customers, the 24-year-old Hoquiam man offers a hello to each person in his line and flashes a bright smile.
In his line, a small boy helped Elliott by placing an item in one of the plastic bags on the counter.
“Hey — that’s my job,” Elliott said to the boy and they both chuckled.
Elliott worked at other jobs before landing this one, but none of them seemed to fit. Working long hours in roofing took a toll on him and seemed to exacerbate his condition.
“I was in a shell,” Elliott said. “I’m a lot more outgoing than I used to be. I wasn’t very social at first.”
Patti Kennedy, Aberdeen Safeway store director, agreed with Elliott’s assessment.
“When his confidence increased, this bubbly personality came out,” Kennedy said. “Customers like him and we’ve had numerous people tell us how helpful he is and what a pleasant young man he is.”
In addition to his duties as a courtesy clerk, MorningsideElliott is now taking on additional responsibilities. He cleans in the meat department in the later hours and helps with cleanups throughout the store.
Elliott was able to find his job thanks to an organization called Morningside. His mom told about the organization — a Washington non-profit, based in Olympia, which provides employment placement services for people with disabilities, like Elliott.
The focus, however, is not on disabilities but abilities that each person has. The group’s motto is “Everybody works, everybody wins.”
Elliott was supported by Morningside as he went through the job application process at Safeway and with other employers, interviews and his first days on the job. His Morningside job coach, Robinette Eddy, was by his side throughout the process, advocating for his needs along the way.
In addition to helping clients such as Elliott, Morningside job coaches also work with the employer, ensuring their needs are met as well.
After a few months of assistance, Elliott is ready to work without support. He is working toward living independently and will continue to add hours to attain that goal. In the meantime, Morningside is ready to add another client to their caseload.
Morningside contracts with state agencies, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and the Developmental Disability Administration, to provide their job placement and coaching services.
The Morningside office in downtown Aberdeen is a small one, with just four employees. Diane Lee Crawford is the program manager for Grays Harbor. Eddy is an employment consultant and a job developer, and Teri Holmes and Debbie Harders are job coaches.
“For us, it’s more than just filling out a job application. We are their advocate and their representative,” Crawford said. Morningside supports people with a wide range of disabilities, which could be physical, mental health-related, developmental or emotional. The organization currently has 32 clients with a variety of needs.
“It could be that someone has to change careers because of an injury, a bad knee, maybe they have anxiety” Crawford said. Whatever the disability may be for a client, the organization is there to support them. “Everybody comes with a story — their own experiences and they just want an opportunity to work. And here, everybody works.”
Eddy said the organization has placed people who work for just an hour a week, but that one hour gives the client purpose.
“They are a part of something, they have a purpose, they are contributing,” Eddy said. “That’s so important.”
Also important is not just that the client finds work, but that they also enjoy their job. Eddy said she and the other coaches try to find that perfect fit for each of their clients.
“If they’re not enjoying it, then it’s not going to work in the long term,” Eddy said. “It’s like a lock and key. It has to fit them.”
Client Angela Sieler has found her forever job at the Warm Company in Elma. Sieler has worked at the cotton-batting factory for just a few months. She is still receiving job coaching from Eddy and works a second job at Quilt Harbor in Aberdeen.
Sieler’s job at the Warm Company is to fold different sizes of fabric to fit into plastic bags, readying the product for customers. Sometimes, after she has folded all the fabric, she packages up the filled bags in boxes for shipment. Another job duty is to cut and attach fabric samples onto sample boards.
“I’m always busy doing something. I like the same routine and this never changes,” Sieler said. “I like to stay busy and I like the routine.”
Seiler said she can see herself working at the Warm Company for years, and has thought about retiring from there sometime down the road, as her predecessor, another Morningside client, did.
The Americans with Disabilities Act prevents employers from asking what an employee’s disability is, and the employee may not know they can ask for accommodation. Morningside coaches are the liaisons who bridge that gap in communication.
“Maybe they had some struggles with a previous employer and had a bad outcome. Maybe they weren’t able to communicate their needs to their employer or maybe they didn’t want to ask for help,” Eddy said.
In addition to job placement services, Morningside helps clients to coordinate transportation or residential support. They do whatever they can for the client to maintain their employment and live independently.
“If we don’t provide it, we’ll find someone who can,” Crawford said.
Finding employers willing to give opportunities to their clients has been a challenge for Morningside. Often, an employer will say they have tried working with a person with disabilities in the past and it didn’t work out.
“We ask, ‘Why didn’t it work, and how can we fulfill your needs now,’ ” Eddy said. A critical portion of her job is supporting the employers and setting them up for success with Morningside clients. Part of that includes providing training and coaching for the clients. Some clients require hands-on training and others may require a picture task list, depending on what their needs are. Eddy and the other job coaches do what is necessary to make the fit a good one.
Eddy is always on the lookout for employment opportunities for her clients. Whether shopping or eating at stores and restaurants, Eddy eyeballs local businesses for jobs and ways to connect her clients.
“If somebody (an employer) says ‘I have a need,’ I say, ‘I have somebody to do that for you,’” Eddy said. “I’m always making connections.”
Networking is how Eddy was able to place Jessie Burnside in the public works department at the county building in Montesano. At a Greater Grays Harbor event, Eddy met with Grays Harbor County commissioner Wes Cormier and introduced him to Morningside.
Cormier championed the idea among his fellow commissioners and once they were on board, Mark Cox, deputy director of public works, said he was tasked with finding a role for Burnside.
Cox found a job for Burnside that includes managing recycling and grounds keeping at the county buildings. Burnside works about four hours a day and his salary is paid through the solid waste fund. Cox said it was a good fit so far.
“It’s working very well for the county. The beauty of the program is that Morningside provides a mentor and the training,” Cox said. “It also puts a human face on the county. It’s people are helping people.”
Burnside said he is quite happy in his new position and walking the grounds at the county buildings have helped him get into shape.
“I like the work and the people — there are nice people here. I have a good manager,” Burnside said. “I am more active now. I love it.”
Crawford said that the key to finding lasting work for individuals with disabilities is building relationships with both the client and the employers.
And everybody works.