John Kephart, utility worker in the kitchen at The Nittany Lion Inn
on the University Park campus, sorts clean flatware.
Kephart was hired through the University's
Opportunity Network for Employment program.
Photo: Greg Grieco
By Annemarie Mountz
John Kephart has always wanted to work for Penn State. Roughly six months ago, he met his goal when he was hired as a utility worker in the kitchen at The Nittany Lion Inn on the University Park campus.
Kephart's success is no small feat. A person with special needs from The Arc of Centre County, Kephart has some difficulty answering questions posed by strangers.
"Once he gets to know you, he really opens up," said Mike Plavko, employment specialist at The Arc. As Kephart's job coach, Plavko works with Kephart and his supervisor, Chef Tom Schilling, to ensure satisfactory job performance and appropriate work-related behavior.
How does someone with special needs navigate the complex hiring procedure in place at the University?
In the past, agencies that serve people with disabilities found it difficult to access employment opportunities at Penn State, a very large and complex institution. Jim Purdum, general manager of Hospitality Services and president of the board of directors at The Arc of Centre County, recognized this and brought the issue to Human Resources. He and other key people at the University worked with the outside agencies and the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation to establish the Opportunity Network for Employment (ONE) to coordinate the process.
"The goal of the program is to provide equal access to and assistance with the employment process," said Billie Willits, assistant vice president for Human Resources, who played a major role in the program's development. "Penn State has always provided for people with special needs, but we didn't have the support and coordination in the past that we do now."
ONE appears to be the only program of its kind in Pennsylvania. It is unique in that an employer has established a specialized position for employing people with disabilities. Another unusual aspect is that two-thirds of the funding for the position comes from the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.
The program also serves high school students with disabilities who have an educational plan designed to make the transition from school to independent life by combining part-time work with school attendance.
"It's not something that happens elsewhere in the community," said Karen Morrow, the employment specialist hired to coordinate ONE. "One of the unique things that we're doing is bringing together three or four different, independent agencies that normally don't work together. They each have distinct clientele and distinct philosophies, but in this case everyone is coming together for the good of ONE."
Morrow, who herself has profound hearing loss, was hired to coordinate the program.
"Having a person in that position at Penn State is certainly a godsend," said Sue Frederick, director of Nittany Employment Services, the employment arm of The Arc. "In the past, various employment specialists had talked to different units, but they all work independently and so it was taking a long time to learn how to navigate the system. All kinds of opportunities are opening up as a result of ONE. It's a wonderful program."
Morrow said ONE helps provide equal opportunity and equal access to employment opportunities for everyone. Through the program, Morrow matches people with positions for which they're qualified and makes sure they have feasible accommodations in the workplace.
Although Morrow receives referrals from service agencies, she can assist anyone with a documented disability navigate the system. While she assists individuals in the employment process, Morrow stresses that prospective employees must be qualified for the position before being hired. The program does not guarantee employment.
"This place is so large, and there are so many different types of units with so many different needs. Each person with a disability is a unique individual with his or her own abilities. Each case is different and each match has to fit. I try to match up the needs of the individual with the needs of the employer."
Kephart, who was hired by Hospitality Services through ONE, has been an ideal fit, coming to the University with previous experience in similar positions.
"I worked at Shoney's and Kenny Rogers before coming here," Kephart said. "I like the people here. It's a good place to work."
Although the University is far ahead of other employers, Willits said there is more the University can do.
"ONE was established at University Park in March 1997, so it's really still in its infancy. There's still a lot of room for growth and evolution," she said. "Also, as far as we know this program is unique to Penn State. We would like to see ONE become a model for other employers."
For more information about ONE, contact Karen Morrow in the Employment and Compensation Division of the Office of Human Resources by calling (814) 865-1387, by TTY at (814) 863-0304, by e-mail at email@example.com or by writing her at Box 31 Rider Building, 120 S. Burrowes St., University Park, Pa. 16801.
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