In Coos County, Working Wonders helps people with mental illness gain employment

The World, Sept. 15, 2014

Office workIt’s been helping find work for people with mental illness since 2004, when it contracted with the Coos County Mental Health Department.

Working Wonders is one of 26 Oregon Supported Employment Centers for Excellence. One of the top OSECEs in the state, it has about 50 clients who battle mental illness and wish to work. It has served 168 clients, provided 193 job starts and 25 graduations since opening.

Representatives from the local service will attend the state’s sixth annual conference for supported employment centers from Sept. 16-17 in Eugene.

One of the main obstacles clients face is that they don’t realize what skills they have, said program director Cathy Pennington. “There isn’t a single person in the program who didn’t have strengths or skills that were marketable.”

The program helps people like Karen Sparks, who has both a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and one in fisheries biology, but has been told most of her life that she can’t hold a job because of her mental illness. She now facilitates one of the support groups at Working Wonders and is looking for a job using her skills.

In her spare time, she paints elaborate portraits, wildlife and landscape scenes and teaches others her craft. She also reads science textbooks for fun.

“It’s fabulous having her around,” Pennington said.

Sparks hopes to get a job in the competitive field of biology, but she needs support. She’s done some housecleaning in the meantime.

“There’s a fine line between staying mentally healthy and not,” Pennington said. “Our hope is that we can reduce the shame of the illness.”

Pennington noticed others, such as Kim Burney, have skills they didn’t realize they had. Burney discovered she was “good with her hands” after she was asked to help put in tile at a restaurant she had been cleaning.

“We know she has the aptitude, so now we can look for opportunities,” Pennington said.

When a client asks for help, workers immediately search for opportunities, Pennington said. Clients still have to apply for jobs themselves, she said, but Working Wonders provides extra support.

“The message is you don’t have to do this by yourself,” Pennington said.

Resources available to clients include teaching clients resume writing, interviewing, dealing with on-the-job stress and encouragement.

“If we can’t help, they have other avenues we can direct them to,” Pennington said. “It helps alleviate the extra stress knowing someone is there at the end.”