In the last two years, Carissa Welter has spent time learning new skills on the production floor at KANDU Industries in Janesville.
The 36-year-old Beloit resident and former Chicagoland resident with disabilities calls her work at KANDU an “all business, drama-free” job she loves. She said that in the past year alone, she has been given several opportunities to learn new things.
Last summer, Welter said she landed an internship at the Stateline YMCA in Beloit through KANDU’s work placement services. She said the Y later hired her part-time.
At the Y, Welter said she collects, cleans and folds towels, and she does light cleaning three days a week.
The work placement program at KANDU that matches clients (people with disabilities) with local industries (retailers and other businesses) is growing, partly because some local companies are seeking to solve a labor shortage. But it also is because some companies have become more willing to hire and train people with cognitive disabilities or limitations, said Julie Smith, KANDU’s program director.
Recently, United Way Blackhawk Region awarded KANDU a two-year, $25,000 grant the organization can use to offset training costs for local companies looking to hire KANDU clients. That translates to a $50,000 pot of funding KANDU officials hope can help clients such as Welter land jobs that might turn into long-term opportunities.
“One of the things we run into a lot is that many of our clients are approved for temporary work experiences, which are 90 days, with the hope of being hired permanently upon the completion of a temporary work experience,” Smith said. “But for our clients, that can require a lot of job coaching. It’s very labor intensive because it’s often one-on-one training, and that’s where the cost comes in. It’s why we’re so excited to be supported by United Way in this.”
Welter, who lives with her parents, said her mom jokingly says her tandem jobs through KANDU and the Y keep her “off the streets and out of trouble.”
Welter said she knows she never really was a troublemaker. She said she sang in the choir at her high school in Villa Park, a Chicago suburb, and she has always filled her time with activities she said make her feel “she can just be herself.”
Smith said KANDU works to place clients outside of its own in-house, light-manufacturing facility and into several local retailers including two Ace Hardware stores, some grocery stores and a few retailers and restaurants, among others.
She said the United Way grant could help KANDU ramp up the number of clients it annually places in jobs from between 50 and 70 to as many as 90.
Smith said the United Way grant also could help KANDU gradually broaden its services to people from “disadvantaged” populations, including those who have been incarcerated or are homeless.
She said some clients, such as Welter, would have an increased ability to work in KANDU’s “blended program,” a path the nonprofit uses to help clients build pre-vocational skills along with working at jobs in the community.
Smith said for some KANDU clients, the experience of working in a community setting at a local business also helps teach “soft skills,” the interpersonal traits many workers must develop to interact well with colleagues and the public.
Welter, who is by nature talkative and outgoing, said she has made several new friends through her gig at the Y. And she’s grown confident joking around and having some fun on the job with a favorite co-worker, a man she called Jerry.
“Like I told Jerry, we’ve got to have time for some fun or some laughter in our lives,” she said. “Because like I always say, life is too short to be serous all the time. We’ve got to have little fun.”
Welter said it makes her happy to know the new United Way grant could put KANDU in a position to help more people. She remembers being placed on wait lists for such services in the past.
“They’re wise to do this—the United Way and KANDU. Wise,” Welter said. “They’re thinking of the clients. Like me. Because I’m willing to learn new stuff.
“I think this is going to help more people get off a list and do things. Learn things,” she added. “And thank God, because I know it’s really, really helped me.”