These days, work isn’t easy to find, even in Arlington.
According to the Virginia Employment Commission, unemployment in the county is on the rise — up about 1 percent from last year.
While high profile cases like Enron and Worldcom highlight the rise in unemployment, other Arlingtonians face employment difficulties for a different reason: disabilities.
They may fall between the cracks, ending up on welfare. But under federal welfare reform measures, that’s no guarantee.
"Federal legislation is up for changing people on the welfare program to working status," Charles Richman, president of the Sheltered Occupational Center of Northern Virginia, said, "but has it improved their lives?"
Sheltered Occupational Center of Northern Virginia, or SOC, has made its home in Arlington since 1959. According to its mission, SOC has integrated business and rehabilitative services to "assist, empower and support individuals with disabilities to achieve employment, independence and integration in the workplace and in the community."
On the business side, SOC provides clerical services, like printing, binding, packaging, and mass mailings for private and government agencies, employing people with disabilities for these services.
Richman explained that one of the company's main goals is to "upgrade the image of what people with disabilities can do."
Aside from employment, SOC also offers career counseling, travel training, group supported services, and individual supported employment.
<b>SOC WAS ALSO</b> awarded a recent hard-to-serve grant from the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families welfare-to-work program. The grant partners SOC with state agencies to help the individuals in need identify their barriers and limitations to employment, and provide the training and support services to overcome them.
"The partnership allows them to pull together the resources the help the TANF population," said Sinclair Hubard, SOC’s director of rehabilitative services. The program draws mostly women, Hubard said, and people whose learning disabilities may have been overlooked as they went through school.
In fact, nearly 40 percent of the people receiving TANF benefits have a learning disability significant enough to create barriers to employment. Through the hard-toserve grant, welfare recipients participate in the employment program, VIEW, and are able to identify their obstacles, overcome them, and go to work.
<b>HAS IT IMPROVED</b>their lives? Yes, said Catherine Stevens, TANF recipient and VIEW participant. Stevens is what Etsu Tefera, Independence Specialist, calls a "success story."
A little less than a year ago, Stevens came to the Arlington Employment Center to look for work. She qualified for TANF and was screened by SOC. "I took tests, and they helped me learn a lot about myself," Stevens said, "like things that were wrong with me."
Diagnosed with a learning disability and borderline intellectual functioning, SOC helped accommodate the disabilities and support Stevens’ employment search with VIEW, Tefera said.
As one of the requirements of her welfare, Stevens had to take part in community service or a volunteer program. That led her to work with children, in a job opportunities program. "On the first day of orientation, I thought ‘This is what I want to do,’" she said.
Stevens began to volunteer as a substitute teaching assistant at the Wilson Center. "They called me ‘Old Reliable,’" she said, because she always came on time and often stayed late. Recognizing that working with children was real possibility, SOC helped Stevens enter a three-month training program, Tefera said.
Because of the partnership that the federal grant created, Stevens was also able to find affordable child care for her two young daughters while she trained for her new employment.
"It was very emotional when I had to leave [the Wilson Center]" and begin training, Stevens said. Having finished her training, Stevens will begin working full-time as a paid teacher’s assistant in August.
So, has SOC’s programs improved lives?
"If it weren’t for this program," Stevens said, "I wouldn’t be this far."