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Darrell sits with his coworkers in the break room, talking excitedly about plans for the weekend, talking shop about their jobs, swapping stories and sharing a laugh. Today is a little unusual, since there is a photographer there taking pictures of Darrell; his coworkers are buzzing about Darrell’s celebrity and asking for autographs.

“Darrell is a great worker,” said Brian Forehand, Production Manager at AmeriPride, one of the largest uniform rental and linen supply companies in the country. “He’s a lot of fun to be around. Everybody here loves him.”

This comes with no qualifier, no caveat, no mention that Darrell is a young man with developmental disabilities and a client at RHD Memphis in Tennessee. That’s exactly what RHD programs in Tennessee are striving for — with great success across the state.

Tennessee mandates that providers find and support employment for 15 percent of their consumers. At RHD’s programs in Tennessee, 33 percent of consumers have attained and held employment.

“We are an employment-first program,” RHD Tennessee State Director Mary Hamlett said. “Our first option is to see if the people we support can be employed in some way — whether that is as a volunteer, or doing seasonal work, or part-time, or full-time. For most people, it’s about feeling more independent and, maybe for the first time in their lives, really setting and achieving some goals. We’re proud to be assisting in those goals.”

“At RHD, we work very hard to look at their interests, their abilities, what their strengths are,” said Anthony Ricks, RHD Memphis Mainstay South. “We know the people we serve. We want people placed in situations where they’ll be challenged, but also where they have the best possible chance to be successful.”

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In Tennessee, RHD supports four programs from Memphis to Nashville that work with people with developmental disabilities in supportive, supervised residential settings. RHD promotes the fundamental concept of people living with the highest level of independence possible. For many people, the opportunity to attain employment is a key element of self-esteem and dignity. One of Darrell’s main goals is to work — even on weekends, when he’s not at AmeriPride, he washes cars, trims hedges, mows lawns and does other odd jobs in his neighborhood to earn extra income.

“He’s a go-getter,” said Direct Service Professional Mike Sasfrass, who accompanies Darrell on the job at AmeriPride. “He really loves having a sense of being needed. He loves his job so much; he’s always upbeat and ready to go, every morning. If you’re around him, even on days when you’re feeling kind of down, he’ll lift your spirits. I wish I had half his energy.”

At AmeriPride, Darrell noticed his coworkers set daily goals for themselves, keeping tallies on a white board. He began carrying a notebook with him to set and record his daily production. Forehand said that Darrell worked hard to learn each task, and before long was exceeding his goals every day.

“This is the best job,” Darrell said. “All my coworkers are real nice; they help me stay on task, and I stay busy. It makes me happy. I feel happy to have this job.”

Behind Darrell in the AmeriPride break room are portraits of the employee of the month. As he talked about his goals, Darrell pointed at the wall and said: “I’m trying to get up there!”

“Working is very important to him,” said Taria Brown, RHD Program Manager. “He wanted to prove to himself and everyone else that he’s capable just like you and me, that he can do it. Having a job shows him that he’s able and responsible. He was very adamant about: I can do this. Let me show you.”

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Dennis is a consumer at RHD of Middle Tennessee’s Respite program, and he works at Goodwill in Lebanon, Tennessee. After he punches in each day, Dennis gets right to work; he begins by rounding up shopping carts across the parking lot, then moves inside to help manage the aisles and the displays.

“I love to work,” Dennis said. “I love my job. You gotta work if you want to make that money!”

“Dennis is great to have here,” said Hannah Malone, Lead Sales at Goodwill and Dennis’ supervisor. “He does a lot, he’s always on time, and he works hard. Anything we ask, he does it with a smile on his face. Everyone loves Dennis. He’s great.”

RHD staff assisted Dennis in applying for his job, but he’s worked hard on his own to be successful there. He’s progressed to the point where staff transports him to work, but once there Dennis goes through his day independently, without staff on site.

“Dennis has set a great example for the people in our program,” said Aaron Jolly, Director at RHD Nashville. “He’s one of the people we point to, to say: Dennis graduated the program and you can do it as well. He’s a hard-working, fun, easy-going guy. He wants to be involved in his schedule, and he wants to make his own decisions.”

“He’s really independent,” said Direct Support Professional Jatory Johnson. “He loves his job, because he likes to earn his own money and do things for himself. That’s important to him. And that’s important to us, that people be able to live in their own homes with as much independence as possible. Being able to help Dennis achieve that makes me happy.”

Hamlett said one of the advantages RHD’s programs in Tennessee has is a high number of long-standing staff, who know the community and can help identify and work with businesses like Goodwill and AmeriPride who are willing to partner with RHD to provide meaningful work in a positive and productive environment.

“Part of what we’ve done here is look at different ways to provide opportunities for people to find employment,” Hamlett said. “We don’t stick to a strict narrative of: A job is this many hours, and here is what it looks like. That doesn’t apply to some people. We’ve found that people are happier and behavioral incidents decrease significantly when people are employed.

“We work with a challenging group here, and we can accomplish a lot by supporting them as they work to be involved in their community. So we find unique ways to make opportunities available. That’s how success stories like Darrell and Dennis happen — when people can be in a situation where they love their job and are well respected on the job. It makes you proud to be a part of that.”

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