They number only 23 amid a campus of thousands. But the participants in Boston College’s award-winning Supported Employment Program, which provides jobs for adults with developmental disabilities, have had an outsized impact on the University community during the program’s three decades.
SEP employees have impressed with their zeal, spirit and dedication, as well as a willingness to reach out and engage others – and, in the process, often challenging assumptions and perceptions about persons with special needs.
SEP – which formally celebrated its 30th anniversary on Nov. 2 in the Yawkey Athletics Center Murray Room – has been honored by The Arc of Massachusetts, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life and services for Massachusetts citizens with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
For SEP participants, working at BC is a critical piece of an overall quest to develop vocational and social skills, build relationships and realize their potential to the fullest extent possible. Their success, and that of SEP, hinges on the efforts of a small program staff in partnership with a number of University departments and offices.
“SEP has been a whole lot of help to me,” says Brendan Durkin, a two-year participant who will gather with current and former program participants, supervisors, agency partners and job coaches for the anniversary celebration. “It’s made me feel not just included, but also helpful.”
“SEP employees like Brendan hold up a mirror to the rest of us – they bring a unique set of contributions to the workplace, and with that comes disability awareness and understanding,” says Julianne Ferro, who has been involved in SEP for 10 years, the last two as its coordinator. “Beneficial relationships form between participants and their supervisors and co-workers, creating experiences for mutual learning and an appreciation of differences. These individuals bring a variety of essential skill sets and colorful personalities that positively contribute to campus diversity.
“With the right supports, participants are able to strive to meet their fullest potential while SEP and their BC partnering departments continue to promote an environment of inclusion and social justice.”
SEP participants, who typically work 18 to 28 hours a week, are currently employed in Dining Services, Facilities, University Libraries, the Flynn Recreation Complex, BC Bookstore, Human Resources, the BC School of Social Work, Connell School of Nursing, Woods College of Advancing Studies, and the Office of Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment. Each SEP employee works one-to-one with a job coach who handles training and assessment and provides ongoing support as needed.
Candidates for SEP are referred to the University by the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services, which provides funding to cover the cost of training and support for each participant; salaries are paid from the employing department’s budget.
SEP is starting to undergo a demographic transformation, with the retirement this past summer of Kevin Browne and Jimmy LaCroix, among the first seven members of the program. Their departure leaves four of the original SEP cohort, including Dining Services workers Margie Richardson and Joanne Annello, who have benefited from the stability and continuity SEP has provided.
Richardson talks about her daily tasks in Corcoran Commons (“I clean the chairs and tables – not just the table tops, the whole table!” she says with a hearty laugh) and the things she enjoys about her job, such as “the nice people” she meets.
“I like moving around every day,” she says. “Why not?”
Annello takes pride in maintaining the Corcoran salad bar and likes interacting with customers (“Sometimes they ask me about a certain dressing they want”). Like Richardson, Durkin and most other SEP workers, she is matched with a BC student through the University’s Best Buddies program.
Durkin, at 22, is part of the new generation of SEP. Raised in a BC family – his parents met while undergraduates, and his brother and sisters also are alumni – he served an internship in Athletics while in high school before joining SEP. He splits his time working for Campus Recreation and several offices at St. Clement’s. One of Durkin’s major achievements was getting a shift at the Flynn Recreation Complex front desk; he also is involved in training incoming student employees.
“I was able to work on the front desk because I advocated for myself,” says the earnest Durkin, who often talks about striving for goals. “I like helping the student workers when they first come to the RecPlex, because I’m part of a team. And teamwork means inclusion.”
Durkin regards his work situation as “the student becoming the teacher, and the teacher becoming the student” – for most of his fellow employees, Durkin is their first co-worker or friend with a disability.
For all Durkin has gained in acquiring new skills and increased responsibilities, says Campus Recreation Member Sales and Service Manager Sandy Corsi, “what he has given in return is so much more valuable to both the professional and student staff. In a time when we are all working hard to be inclusive, Brendan makes it easy. He is an amazing person and everyone who works with Brendan is better for it. I know that I am.”
Timothy Fonseca, executive pastry chef for the Dining Services Bakery, is similarly laudatory of SEP workers like Matthew McDonald, who is part of Fonseca’s bakery team.
“Matthew does a wide range of duties for the bakery that are key to our daily success. While Matthew pushes to complete his responsibilities, he also manages to lighten up our days with his tremendous enthusiasm and personality,” says Fonseca, who quotes one of McDonald’s catch-phrases: “‘I’m going to work here forever – you and me forever.’”
Click here for more information on the BC Supported Employment Program.
-Sean Smith / University Communications