The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which is the official name for the infamous federal stimulus package, sent more than $6.3 million to Vocational Rehabilitation Services.
Over the next couple of years VRS invested about $1.6 million of those stimulus dollars to finance 316 paid internships for VR consumers. One of those consumers was Josh Peek, a man in his late 20s from Pillager, who took advantage of the opportunity to do an internship at Heartland Tire in Brainerd.
He had been to school at Central Lakes College in Staples and earned a degree in diesel mechanics. But at the time Josh was receiving Social Security Disability Insurance. He was born deaf, and other barriers—such as depression, substance abuse and motivational issues—all played into his inability to find a job.
He had told Kendra Mooney, his VR counselor in Little Falls, that he was determined to find full-time employment, stop receiving Social Security benefits, and gain his independence.
The internship was a step in that direction. The challenge was to persuade the folks at Heartland Tire that there are ways to communicate and work effectively with someone who is deaf.
Pam Evans, a VRS placement coordinator, joined the effort to coordinate the internship with Heartland Tire and to help them provide an appropriate workplace accommodation for Josh. The VRS team also enlisted the help of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services at the Department of Human Services for advice.
The solution proved to be deceptively easy: smart phone technology and voice-to-text phone service. With this relatively simple technology, Josh was able to send text messages to his supervisor; and the phone converted the supervisor's voice into text that Josh could read. In this way they created an internship experience that proved to be mutually beneficial for Josh and the company he worked for.
VRS was also able to get an approved Plan for Achieving Self Support (or a PASS plan) for Josh, which helped him to defray the cost of transportation by enabling him to acquire a car to get to and from work and job interviews.
When the internship ended last summer, Josh began in earnest to search for full-time employment. He was interviewed by many prospective employers, and finally landed his full-time job as a mechanic at Mr. Tire in Brainerd.
When he began his new job VRS provided sign language interpreters to help get him started, but after a short time they shifted to the smart phone technology. In addition, the company acquired an introductory sign language book and encouraged staff to learn some of the language basics to communicate with Josh.
"Josh has been employed full time for several months and reports that he really loves his job," says Kendra. "He's honing his mechanical skills and developing new skills and plans to pursue a career as an auto mechanic. He's definitely moving toward self-sufficiency."
Josh Peek received services at the Little Falls office.