Eliminating barriers

Photo by Ann Gill ILLINOIS VALLEY INDUSTRIES has been assisting Grundy County area adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities for over 50 years. The agency got its start in the basement of the First Baptist Church in Morris with six clients. Today, the agency provides over 60 clients with a variety of services from vocational training, to independent living skills. Under the direction of executive director Stephanie Kessler (left), Illinois Valley Industries recently expanded to Coal City. Community employment specialist Nick Peters (right) is available to meet with clients twice a month—first and third Wednesdays—at 100 S. Baima St., in the Help for Hope offices.

Ann Gill

Improving the quality of life for all Grundy County residents has been the objective of Illinois Valley Industries since it first open in 1968. The non-profit service agency, assists adults with intellectual, developmental, sensory, physical and emotional barriers to define who they are, what they want to do and how they direct their lives through vocational, educational, social and residential services, according to Stephanie Kessler, the agency’s executive director. In a bit of a history lesson, Kessler explains the agency got its start as Illinois Valley Sheltered Workshop. A name change came about in the 1980’s as, “an individual expressed his displeasure with our name and the perceived difference and negative connotation of ‘sheltered workshop’ when he deposited his checks at the bank and applied for work in the community,” she said. Soon after, the name was legally changed to Illinois Valley Industries, but as Kessler notes, the philosophy remained that every individual with disabilities should have the opportunity to make a contribution to society and the right to a productive and worthwhile place in the community. Illinois Valley started with six clients and within 10 years the client list grew to 60 which necessitated a move from the basement of the First Baptist Church of Morris to a stand alone facility a 1033 Third Ave. The agency continues to operate from its Morris headquarters where it provides vocational training, independent living skills and employment placement. The agency also operates a supported living complex and apartments for residents looking for a bit of independence. Those living in Illinois Valley apartments are provided staff assistance with tasks such as cooking, cleaning and budgeting. “It’s a bit like going to college when you step out of your parents house and you need to learn all of these tasks to survive, and for our residents that parlays into independence,” she said. Along with residential programs, Illinois Valley offers clients a myriad of services from personalized support to day programs that provide educational and vocational training. “Through hard work and dependability, Illinois Valley Industries has captured the Illinois Department of Transportation State Use contract for road barricades since 1989, allowing more and different work opportunities to the individuals at the day program,” Kessler said. The agency also works with area school districts, providing outreach and advocacy. Now that school’s are required to offer school-to-work transition programs for students enrolled in special education, Illinois Valley expanded its programs to offer opportunities for students and schools that assisted in meeting state requirements. Community employment is one of the agency’s growing programs and it recently expanded the service with office hours in Coal City. Twice a month—the first and third Wednesdays—the agency’s community employment specialist Nick Peters is available to meet with current and potential clients to discuss employment opportunities and processes. The office, located in the Help for Hope building at 100 S. Baima St., is open from 8-10 a.m. and Peters said the space eliminates a travel barrier for many clients. “We are there twice a month, so individuals can come in and have their meeting with me as they are going through the employment process,” he said. The employment services offered by Illinois Valley require a referral from the Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS), and this is a process that Peters can help clients with even before they are assigned to work with him. In order to meet DRS criteria an individual must have an employment barrier and that does not necessarily have to be an intellectual or developmental disability. “There is a wide range of criteria that would meet an employment barrier to qualify for services,” Kessler said. Such obstacles could be auto-immune disorders, physical, sensory, emotional, medical or communication barriers. Once an individual obtains a DRS referral they can begin working with Peters on the job search. Illinois Valley provides clients with employment services including job training and interviewing. Peters provides individualized services based on each client’s needs. “We are assisting them in whatever they need to find a job. So whatever those barriers are, we can work on eliminating those barriers. Everything is based on individual need, we don’t do one thing for every client. We have some who need more support than others, so everything from looking for jobs that are available, to applying for those jobs and interviewing, and once a job is obtained there is training or anything they need to keep that job,” Peters said. According to Kessler, some employers will seek input on job accommodations for certain employees and Illinois Valley helps with that be it color coding for people with limited reading or low tech fixes that allow a person to be more independent and assist with their job duties to make a more level playing field. “You have this large population of people who have employment related barriers and the main objective is to address that, because when you have people who have a high quality of life your communities are more diverse, businesses are more successful, you have more employee engagement and when you have people who are happy that has a ripple effect as far as what we do and how we do it,” Kessler said. Peters and Kessler hope to get the word out about the services the agency provides, especially employment services and local availability now that the Coal City office is open. A public meeting focused on the agency’s employment services program is scheduled for 5 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 30 in the meeting room at the Coal City Public Library, 85 N. Garfield St. Individuals and businesses interested in learning how they can benefit from the program are encouraged to attend. At the meeting people can learn more about the process and working through DRS. Peters said they will also highlight all of the different services that come with the program, from job site assessments and training, to working with employers on the benefits they can receive from hiring. “When you have diversity in your community and your workplace everybody benefits,” Kessler said. Through the program, Illinois Valley has witnessed a number of successes from clients that have secured union positions to those that have long-term fulfilling careers they retire from. As Peters and Kessler note, Illinois Valley stays with its clients. “We’re not going to step away if somebody needs help. We’re going to help them and that’s just the philosophy of Illinois Valley as a whole, that’s just who we’ve always been and who we will also continue to be. It’s about the individual and what it’s going to take for them to be successful,” Kessler said.