Employee of the year

Everybody knows Ella.

When Ella walks into the Healthmark Regional Medical Center for her job in the hospital’s kitchen, people at every step along the way wave and say hello. This summer they added “Congratulations!” Ella got a job in the hospital’s dietary department 20 years ago with the help of RHD DeFuniak Springs, but she went above and beyond to make the job her own. And this year she was recognized as the hospital’s employee of the year.

“If I had two Ellas in here, I wouldn’t need anybody else,” said Dietary Supervisor Pat Pryor. “She’s so hard-working — never grumps, never gripes, always smiling. We love our Ella.

“Her original job was washing dishes, but she does everything. She mops, she does stock, she puts everything up, she cooks, she cleans the fryer, she serves on the line. She’ll tell you her job title is ‘dishwasher,’ but she shouldn’t have that job title. She does way more than that. She does everything.”

Ella has been a client at RHD DeFuniak Springs, a community-based clubhouse model and day program serving adults with developmental disabilities, since RHD founded the program.

DeFuniak Springs includes training in activities of daily living, pre-vocational skills, job exploration, volunteer services, work enclaves, community resource utilization, community organization participation, recreation skills, residential rehabilitation, respite care, and personal care services. In 2002, the program expanded to provide supported living services.

“We’ve seen her grow so much. Everybody’s proud of her,” said DeFuniak Springs Co-Director Sandra Spann. “She went from living with her mom to living in her own place. She raised her son, and supported him through high school. She’s always had this job, always liked to work.

“At the start, I was out there all the time. We helped a lot when she first got the job, because it was a special training and job program. But finally her boss called me and said: Ella is doing an awesome job, can we just go ahead and hire her as a regular employee? That point where Ella didn’t need us so much, that’s what we want.”

Ella needed support in everything from social skills to job skills, from how to dress appropriately to showing up on time. The staff at DeFuniak Springs worked diligently to support her, and her job offered opportunity for independence. Ella threw herself into it. The harder she worked, the more responsibility she got — and as she became empowered at work, Ella grew in her personal life as well.

“RHD helped me a lot, and I’m so glad I have my job,” Ella said. “I love working at the hospital. I like working with the patients. People in the hospital, you want to help make them feel better. I like taking them their food, and I talk to them. I like working with everybody. I love my boss, Pat. I do anything she asks me.”

For a time Ella was showing up on her days off, just in case she was needed (“I practically have to make her take days off,” Pryor said, with a laugh. “She loves to be here”). She loved it so much, without any thought of recognition, that the day when Pryor told her the hospital administrator wanted to see her, she panicked.

“I said: Why?” Ella said. “What did I do? Am I in trouble?”

She wasn’t. Gerald Beard, chief operating officer of Healthmark Regional Medical Center, was waiting with news that Ella had been awarded Employee of the Month for January. That honor qualified her for the Employee of the Year award, and in a unanimous vote of the hospital’s department, Beard had the pleasure of presenting her with the Employee of the Year award at a ceremony in June. It was the first time in the hospital’s history they honored a member of the dietary department. They’d kept the outcome a secret, and surprised Ella with flowers. Beard attempted to give a speech, but choked up midway through it.

“One of our managers had to help me,” Beard said. “I knew I couldn’t do it without breaking up.”

Department director John Ard, in helping present Ella with the award, said: “Ella is one of the most dedicated people I have ever met. She often calls in to see if she is needed. She gets along with everybody, and is a pleasure to work with. Ella is a fine person and a wonderful employee. We are all very proud of her.”

First among the values that guide RHD is a belief in the fundamental dignity of each human being. For many people the opportunity to attain employment is a key element of self-esteem and dignity — so RHD programs across the country make a commitment to helping provide that opportunity, through job training and a dedication to supporting people in attaining jobs in the community.

People with intellectual disabilities, or mental health challenges, or who are re-integrating into society after involvement with the criminal justice system, or who are working to overcome any number of challenges as they seek to attain meaningful employment in their community, are finding support at RHD.

Not everyone gets an award for it, of course – but Ella’s work to overcome her challenges to attain, keep, and excel in her job with the support of staff at DeFuniak Springs is something worth celebrating.

“There are not words for how much she’s grown,” Spann said. “She’s just amazing, and we’re very proud of her.”