Businesses honored for how they help othersIt wasn’t that long ago that Val Jerzak needed some help. Just divorced, the then newly single mother of four had to find a job to support her family. But with scant previous experience, her prospects were grim.
By: Mike Enright, Alexandria Echo Press
It wasn’t that long ago that Val Jerzak needed some help.
Just divorced, the then newly single mother of four had to find a job to support her family.
But with scant previous experience, her prospects were grim.
“I was new in town, and I didn’t know anything because I hadn’t really been in the workforce,” Jerzak said. “I had been at home taking care of the kids.”
Fortunately, she got a hand from the Rural Minnesota Concentrated Employment Program (CEP), a branch of the state’s employment and economic development department that helps find jobs for economically disadvantaged, unemployed, and under-employed persons.
Through CEP, Jerzak was able to gain the necessary skills and training to make the transition into the working world.
“It gave me the confidence and the know-how for how to go through interviews – how to present myself professionally,” she said.
“It was a growing process for me to be able to be where I am today.”
At present, Jerzak is the director of dietary services at Bethany Community, a local assisted-living facility and one of 17 area businesses honored last month at the third annual Douglas County Employer Award Ceremony.
Sponsored by the Douglas County local advisory council on mental health, the awards are given to local companies that provide job opportunities for people experiencing mental health issues.
The program is a partnership between the businesses, Rural Minnesota CEP, Douglas County Social Services Department and Vikingland Community Support Program.
Mike Woods, director of county social services, said the awards are a way to thank employers for helping others who are struggling to get back on their feet.
“They go above and beyond our expectations,” he said. “They open their doors to people who might otherwise not be able to obtain work.”
Jerzak heads up the effort at Bethany, which over the last year has employed nine workers from the program.
“In long-term care the money is so tight; we don’t always have the money to hire staff we need,” Jerzak said. “To have somebody come in and help us out like that is just a godsend.”
Most of the people in the program, she said, work at Bethany temporarily before moving on, though a couple of workers have turned their temporary jobs into full-time employment.
Heidi Corder, program director at Vikingland, said partnerships with businesses like Bethany are key in helping people suffering from mental illnesses put their lives back together.
“We provide mental health support and rehabilitation for folks, vocationally, so they can become self-sufficient again,” Corder said, “because research shows us that folks relapse less when they work.”
Mental illness, such as depression or schizophrenia, is a long-term problem that can’t be cured overnight, she said, but normalizing activities, like working, can help people on their way to recovery.
Corder said the county’s current collaboration has been particularly successful. In three years, it has placed between 30 and 40 people in jobs and helped several individuals work their way off social security disability.
“Any time we can vocationally rehabilitate someone to get them off the system, then that helps the economy, you, I, everybody,” she said.
Corder said she is encouraged by the fact that more and more businesses are beginning to participate in the program, and she hopes its growth will help further break down the stigma still associated with mental illness.
“Mental illness is a brain disorder, not a choice,” she said. “It’s not something folks wake up one day and decide they want to do.
“It needs to be treated as any other ailment.”
Roughly one in four individuals will struggle with mental illness at some point in their life, Corder said.
“People with mental illness are your neighbors; they are your cousins,” she said.
The good news, she said, is that people suffering from mental illness can and do get better, and things like back-to-work programs help achieve that.
As someone who has benefited from a job-training program, Val Jerzak said she is happy to now be able to return the favor for others in need of a little assistance.
“Somebody was there for me,” Jerzak said. “Any time that I can do something for somebody else – there’s a place in my heart for the folks going through programs like this.”