Champions of Change Blog

  • We Can All Be Change Leaders: Employing People with Many Abilities

    David Bartage

    David Bartage is being honored as a Disability Employment Champion of Change.

    I am surprised and incredibly honored to be recognized as a White House Champion of Change for Disability Employment. What began as a small project has led to be my passion, encouraging businesses to find good-paying and sustainable employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

    In 2010, the Procter & Gamble (P&G) site in Auburn, Maine, began planning to add a customization (FlexiCenter) center into their 24/7 manufacturing operation. During our initial discussions, we discussed how we should staff this center and quickly concluded that we should reapply a staffing model we saw at Walgreen’s Distribution Center, in which 30% to 40% of the employees were people with disabilities.

    A local hiring agency for people with disabilities recommended me to reach out to the Maine Bureau of Rehabilitation Services (ME BRS) to develop strategies to integrate individuals with disabilities into our new customized packaging facility, the FlexiCenter. P&G and ME BRS partnered together to identify people with disabilities, the individuals were trained and assessed by ME BRS, and they were then re-assessed in the P&G workplace. ME BRS also worked with our manufacturing site, providing training to all our employees to better prepare us to encourage and support inclusion in the workplace.

    Today, more than three years after opening the doors to the FlexiCenter, 40% of the FlexiCenter employees are individuals with disabilities, working alongside workers who have not disclosed any disability, performing the same jobs with the same expectations and same pay. Some of the benefits of the FlexiCenter include: increased productivity, zero safety incidents, zero quality incidents, 90% reduction in turnover, a significant improvement in morale, reduced hiring costs, reduced training costs, and increased “goodwill” in Maine.

    As I was getting involved with our FlexiCenter, I worked with the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, and the ME BRS to start up the Maine Business Leadership Network (ME BLN). Since its inception, I have been the business leader of the ME BLN. The ME BLN is a state affiliate of the United States Business Leadership Network (USBLN). The ME BLN offers member employers resources for recruiting candidates with disabilities, information on disability issues, recognition for best disability employment practices, and exposure to an untapped market for their goods and services. We also view our role as that of a catalyst and a "connecting point" to promote dialogue and sharing of best practices between employers in a peer-to-peer setting.

    Upon meeting someone for the first time, we are often times asked, “What do you do?” When asked that question, I imagine that for many the first response is what you do for a living. We take a lot of pride in what we do, and it helps to define who we are. It gives us an identity. 

    Over the last several years, I have seen what employment opportunities have done for our P&G employees with disabilities.  It has given them an identity. It has provided them with an opportunity to be integrated into everyday life. It has impacted the employee and the employee’s family. I have heard parents thank us for giving their child an opportunity to work. They have expressed concern that they felt they had to outlive their child to provide them support. They now have hope that their sons and daughters can make it on their own. 

    What started as a project has turned into a passion for helping others and spreading the word of sustainable employment opportunities for people with disabilities. I encourage you to get started and make a positive change in your own way.

    David Bartage is the Plant Finance Manager for the Procter & Gamble, Auburn, ME facility leading the Auburn sites’ efforts in hiring people with disabilities.

  • ABLE to Work

    Alexandra McArthur

    Alexandra McArthur is being honored as a Disability Employment Champion of Change.

    I love my job. As an Associate Consultant at the Taproot Foundation, I work with the country’s top companies to help them build high-impact corporate pro bono programs. I enable companies to use their most important resources, their people, to support nonprofits that are strengthening our communities. My position is challenging, fulfilling, and provides me with a livelihood. Seems pretty lucky, right?

    As a person with a disability, a member of a population where only one out of three of adults ages 18-64 are employed, I’m more than lucky. Barriers, such as poor inclusion training, inaccessible workplaces, benefit systems that disincentive savings, and lack of financial literacy, are keeping talented persons with disabilities out of the workforce. Thus the poverty rate for people with disabilities is nearly double the U.S. national poverty rate.

    This is why I work to reduce these barriers and change these statistics. In 2011, I was chosen as Ms. Wheelchair America on a platform of promoting workplace inclusion. In this position, I traveled across the nation to speak with corporations, associations, diversity groups, government officials, and job-seekers about how every sector can benefit from the talent, perspective, dedication, and creativity that people with disabilities bring to and encourage in their workplaces.

    As a Co-Chair of the Junior Board of Resources for Children with Special Needs, I’ve helped to expose over 60 young professionals to the often-overlooked needs of the disability community. The Junior Board meets regularly to advocate for policy changes, volunteer with youth with disabilities, and to raise money for the organization. I’m thrilled that this year we chose disability employment as our advocacy focus. The board members now know how to make their workplaces, which include schools, investment firms, media agencies, just to name a few, more open to hiring people with disabilities and more accommodating to employees with disabilities. 

    There is much more work to be done to make improvements in the disability employment statistics, which have remained essentially unchanged since the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act nearly 25 years ago. Workforce development programs must integrate specialized programming for people with disabilities. Employers need training about the positive ways hiring people with disabilities impacts their bottom line, in addition to tangible strategies and avenues for recruiting people with disabilities. The disability community needs specialized financial literacy education.

    But perhaps the most significant change needed is currently sitting in the hands of our lawmakers: the ABLE Act. Presently, a person with a disability who receives Social Security benefits cannot have more than $2,000 to their name without losing those benefits. $2,000. Total. The ABLE Act will provide the option for people with disabilities on benefits to earn a living and save for crucial expenses, such as retirement or medical equipment. Thus, it will allow gainful employment to be a realistic option and a true avenue for wealth accrual for people with disabilities.

    I envision a world where people with disabilities are seen as assets in the workplace and are represented in the middle class. Through workforce development, financial education, and passing of the ABLE Act, let’s take steps together to make this vision a reality.

    Alexandra McArthur is a Senior Associate Consultant at the Taproot Foundation and was Ms. Wheelchair America 2011.

  • Roots and Wings

    Patricia Cortez

    Patricia Cortez is being honored as a Latino Educator Champion of Change.

    On my first day of kindergarten, my mother and I walked to my classroom hand-in- hand and eagerly awaited our turn to meet the teacher. When we finally approached her, she gave us a warm smile and greeted us with words that were familiar and comforting. She spoke to us in Spanish, my first language and my mother’s only language. My parents had made the decision to place me in a bilingual classroom, not knowing that this decision would set the trajectory for my life’s work in the very same district.

    It was 1976, and bilingual education was in its infancy in my school district. There were a small handful of teachers at this school who wanted to prove that bilingual educate could work. And I am grateful that these extraordinary teachers helped me develop my Spanish language skills, enabling me to nurture my cultural bonds with my parents and other relatives. The ability to communicate fully with them, I now realize, was a gift that kept me grounded in and connected to my cultural values and to my heritage.

    I am proud to teach at a school where the expectation is that ALL students in our bilingual immersion program will be fully bilingual and biliterate. In addition to being a teacher, for the last five years, I have also served as the school’s resource teacher, facilitating curriculum development. However, it’s not just about the language. Students are also taught a sense of pride, understanding, and respect for their culture and for other cultures. Their ability to speak multiple languages connects them to the world. What an honor it has been to teach and support my students on this journey.

    I often think of that fateful first day of school—and how the encounter with my first teacher inspired a feeling of trust that served as a foundation for what I do as a teacher almost 40 years later. My hope is to inspire my students to pursue their dreams and to always remember and honor their families and community so that they in turn may serve as an inspiration for future generations.  

    Patricia Cortez Hidalgo is a first grade teacher at Alianza Charter School in California.

  • Investing in Our Children Through Urban Education

    Pedro A. Rivera

    Pedro A. Rivera is being honored as a Latino Educator Champion of Change.

    Growing up in the Hunting Park section of North Philadelphia shaped me into the person I am today. Urban education has always been a part of my life. I was raised by a single teenage mother, and I am the only person in my family to attend and graduate from a post‐secondary institution. My passion for service started while attending Penn State University. While I was enrolled as an engineering major, I began tutoring at a local high school and figured out that I belonged in education. Little did I know at the time, this life-changing experience would lead me down such a rewarding path.

    Upon graduating with a degree in education, I returned to my hometown to teach English Language Learners at Kensington High School and basic literacy to adults in the evenings. My passion became clear as I took great pride in changing the lives of kids and serving the greater community. After several roles in the classroom, union, and central office administration, I moved my family nearly 80 miles west to become the first Latino Superintendent of the Lancaster School District.

    This new role provided me with an opportunity to advocate for change. While education is an ever‐evolving process, I was now able to lead the charge. After placing a large emphasis on high-quality instruction and hiring the best and the brightest teachers, positive results followed. Our graduation rates continue to rise, and our students have made steady gains in state assessment scores. We have also provided a nationally acclaimed music and arts program and received a recent recognition by the Washington Post as one of the top twenty high schools for academic rigor in Pennsylvania. 

    Nestled in the heart of Lancaster County in southeast Pennsylvania, the School District of Lancaster serves a diverse student body of 11,500 students, which educates approximately 1,000 homeless students during the course of a year. 17% of our students are learning English, and more than 38 languages are spoken throughout our buildings. 

    We know that we must remove barriers to success in order for our students to thrive. For the past several years, every student in our District has received free breakfast and lunch each school day. Through our community schools, students can receive eye glasses, dental care, and comprehensive medical services. Education is much more than teaching the core subjects. We must cater to the whole child to ensure we meet and exceed their individual needs.

    I am deeply honored to receive the Latino Educator Champion of Change award. I continue to be humbled and inspired by the many professional team members I surround myself with each day. Together, all of us can strengthen America’s future by supporting the many students who fill our classrooms.

    Pedro Rivera is the Superintendent of the School District of Lancaster and a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania.

  • Serving the Underserved with Excellence

    Leonel Popol

    Leonel Popol is being honored as a Latino Educator Champion of Change.

    As a Bilingual School Counselor at Cardozo Education Campus in Washington, DC, I have hoped to create change that will last generations after I’m gone. I believe that the sign of a true educator is someone who creates impact that can exist long after the educator is gone.

    I have worked with the English Language Learners student population at Cardozo since September of 1998. At the time, I knew that I wanted to serve and give back to my community. Cardozo provided me with the perfect opportunity. From the very beginning, I felt that every child was essential and a reflection of the divinity of the universe.

    At Cardozo, I have counseled students who have achieved valedictorian and salutatorian status and have also witnessed students succumbing to gang violence. I have celebrated joyously with students who were awarded college scholarships and have watched others instead go to jail and lose their futures because of their poor decisions. To keep myself going, I have to take pride in the successes and use the failures as motivation to work even harder.

    When I meet parents at Cardozo, I already know the shoes that many of them have walked through. I immigrated to this country 29 years ago and initially worked in construction and housekeeping. I have lived many of the challenges and hardships those parents and their families face every day. I want my students and the community to dream big and work hard to make those dreams come true. I think of students as the little seeds that have the potential to become mighty oak trees. Dreams do come true after all for those who dare to dream and have the determination to achieve great things.

    Leonel Popol is a Bilingual Counselor at the Francis L. Cardozo Education Campus in Washington, DC. He is also the coach of Georgetown University’s women’s soccer team.

  • Preparing Students to Succeed

    Pat Sánchez

    Pat Sánchez is being honored as a Latino Educator Champion of Change.

    Nestled in the historic community of Commerce City and bisected by busy roadways and industry, Adams County School District 14 (Adams 14) is Colorado’s 26th largest school district, serving more than 7,500 students annually. In Adams 14, nearly 83% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, nearly 87% of students are children of color, and nearly 60% of students are English Language Learners.

    In advance of the 2012-13 school year, the Adams 14 Board of Education initiated the complete reconstruction of District administration in order to accelerate reform and improvement in this historically low-performing district. The Board selected me, a lifelong educator, as the new superintendent, based on my past performance in transforming inner city schools.

    Because people support what they help create, my first order of business was to engage in regular communications with all District stakeholders – students, families, employees, and community members – in order to foster a climate and culture of mutual trust and respect.

    This approach helps me address the disparities in Adams 14 that are preventing equity amongst our students. I believe that important discussions with our community partners will help us understand some of the challenges that our students are facing. That’s why I transformed Adams 14’s District Advisory Accountability Committee meetings from a dumping ground for negativity to a community platform where ideas, opportunities, and discussions about children are celebrated.

    In Adams 14, I have tried to ensure that all students are provided culturally-responsive learning environments and are engaged through powerful instructional strategies that facilitate English-language acquisition. Now, our schools have a culture that is based on high expectations for all students and employees, combined with one that supports both academic and social growth for all students.

    Today, there are undeniable, national academic disparities between students of different races and ethnicities. Adams 14 is boldly addressing these disparities that are preventing racial educational equity. I am committed to ensuring that race is no longer a predictor of academic success.

    I initiated a Latino Parent Committee to engage a large proportion of Adams 14’s parent population that had been historically undeserved. I have worked tirelessly to empower all families and community members to become engaged partners in their child’s education by creating welcoming environments District-wide that reflect and support a culturally diverse population.

    A substantial piece of my overall leadership message is the critical importance of creating a paradigm shift in the way we think about our children – and how it is essential to view our children as assets. With this attitude, I’m confident that we will continue educating children of all backgrounds, preparing them to succeed regardless of where they come from.

    Pat Sánchez is Superintendent of Adams County School District 14 in Colorado.

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