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Goodwill’s EWORKS steers people battling mental illness to gainful employment

Robert Masai graduated last week from the Employment WORKS  program run by Goodwill of Orange County for people with mental health disorders. There won’t be a ceremony until November, but Masai is OK with that.

At 32, it’s celebration enough for Masai to work his job as a dishwasher at the El Torito in Orange County. He’s been working there since mid-March, when the restaurant hired him as part of Goodwill’s Employment WORKS program.  For Masai, who has been diagnosed as schizoaffective — meaning he can suffer hallucinations, mania and depression — the routine and respect of regular work is a welcome change. Until this year, he had been unemployed about five years.

But the EWORKS program provided the support Masai needed to get back into the workforce. Started 15 years ago, EWORKS operates under contract with the Orange County Health Care Agency, providing job placement services for about 325 adults a year who have been diagnosed with persistent mental illness but are actively involved in their treatment and want to be gainfully employed.

Robert Masai went through the Employment WORKS program at Goodwill Orange County in Santa Ana, CA. The program at Goodwill Orange County readies those with a mental health diagnosis for the workforce. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

“I’m so thankful I found Goodwill,” said the soft-spoken Masai, of Orange.

He spoke while attending a July 7 meeting at the EWORKS offices in Santa Ana, where he marked 90 days of job retention, the benchmark for graduating out of the program.

“No one saw a spark in me,” Masai said. “No one was giving me a chance.”

Now, Masai feels he’s on a path to keep working and regain his independence. Though he said long-term success will depend on his own initiative — over the years his struggles have been complicated by a combination of too much cannabis and too much hang-time with friends — his confidence is growing.

“I feel like I can spread my wings and fly,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with making good choices.”

Living wage

Richard Silbas, program director for EWORKS, joined Goodwill in 2008 and has seen the EWORKS project gain solid footing. The current three-year, $4.1 million contract with the county runs through June 2023.

The coronavirus pandemic was a hiccup, of sorts, and required changes like virtual graduation ceremonies. But Silbas said over the past 18 months EWORKS staff worked remotely and made roughly 3,000 calls to local employers. In the fiscal year that ended last month, EWORKS had nearly 300 active participants, with 84 full- and part-time placements involved in gainful employment, and nine others in volunteer positions.

To get into EWORKS, employees must be referred from a county-operated mental health clinic or one under contract with the county. The average wage is $15 an hour and the typical placement time is 10 weeks. Silbas said most of the jobs are in retail, food service, warehousing, customer service and security, but there have been a few people who’ve landed jobs paying as much as $22 an hour.

Some, like Masai, might start out in the volunteer program that EWORKS launched more than a decade ago. Silbas said those roles are for people who might not yet be ready for “competitive” employment as a wage earner. Masai volunteered for 90 days at the Orange County Food Bank in Garden Grove before seeking a paying job. Other volunteers are transition age youth, 18 to 24, who often are exiting foster care.

Alexa Hipwell went through the Employment WORKS program at Goodwill Orange County in Santa Ana, CA. The program at Goodwill Orange County readies those with a mental health diagnosis for the workforce. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

It’s not an easy transition. Silbas it’s more likely for a candidate to be discharged from EWORKS during the 90-day job search than it is for a candidate to keep a job for 90 days. But, EWORKS is open to returnees.

“If they’re not working, or they’re not satisfied with their job, we ask them if they’d like to come back into the program,” Silbas said.

Experience and advocacy

Both Masai and Alexa Hipwell, a January graduate, credit employment specialist Huy Trinh for finding the right fit. Trinh also helped both with mock job interviews, workplace attire and sprucing up their resumes.

Hipwell, 26, had a methamphetamine problem but said she has been drug-free for three years now. She went from staying at a women’s shelter to her own apartment in Buena Park. Her son, 2, is in day care while she works. Medication helps keep her anxiety in check. She plans to start online classes in the fall at Santa Ana College, with the long-term goal of becoming a psychologist.

As a paid peer specialist for EWORKS, Hipwell draws on her own experience — a single mom dealing with depression anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, and past substance abuse — to be part sounding board, part cheerleader for others finding their way. Peer specialists also can serve as a go-between with employers if something starts to go awry.

“It just is so difficult to advocate for yourself when you are not used to it,” said Hipwell, keynote speaker at her EWORKS graduation.

“Especially those of us with anxiety.”

Source: Orange County Register

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