477/Vocational Rehabilitation Program looking forward to increased convergence

08.13.2015 Dean Rhodes Culture, Education, Tribal Employees

By Dean Rhodes

Smoke Signals editor

A Chxi-san – new day – dawned earlier in August when several related departments moved into the new Employment Services building on the Tribal campus.

Perhaps no employees are more enthusiastic about the move than the six members of the Vocational Rehabilitation and 477 Employment and Training staff.

Because staff members partner and coordinate with so many other Tribal departments and organizations to serve Grand Ronde Tribal members (Vocational Rehabilitation) and Native American and Alaskan Natives (477 Employment) seeking help in obtaining employment or retraining for a new career, the move is looked upon as a great opportunity.

“I’ve already seen an increase in open lines of communication,” says VR/477 Program Supervisor Michael Herrin inside a conference room at the new Employment Services building. “HR hasn’t been here but two days and they are already calling down saying, ‘Hey, we need people to work the powwow.’ ”

Herrin was joined by his staff – Vocational Rehabilitation case worker Dodie McKenzie, 477 Employment and Training specialists Pearl Rife and Khani Schultz, 477/VR assistant Barbara Gibbons and 477/VR trainee Chris Martin.

In 2014, 304 Native Americans and Alaska Natives applied for help through the 477 Employment program with 281 applications accepted. Of those accepted, 177 were placed in plans and 93 clients were successful.

For 2015, current numbers project that 80 Grand Ronde Tribal members with a disability will be placed on an individualized plan for employment training with Vocational Rehabilitation. To date, 45 percent of those placed have been successful.

Rife says the new structure, designed to be a one-stop shop for Tribal members and other Native Americans seeking employment, allows a Native job-seeker to sign up for help from the 477 Employment or Vocational Rehabilitation programs, as well as contact the Tribal Employment Rights Office about possible construction jobs available within a 60-mile radius of the Reservation and then walk over to the Human Resources Department for both the Tribal government and Spirit Mountain Casino to find out about job openings and also sign up for the temporary worker pool.

“We try to meet each individual where they are when they come in and apply for services” Gibbons says. “The most important key aspect is to make sure that each individual Tribal member, whether they be a Grand Ronde Tribal member or from other Tribes that can access services under federal grant dollars, that they have to have easy access to all of the services and we are here as the specialists to make sure we steer them in the right direction.”

“I do want to emphasize that we are a Native program for Natives,” Herrin says. “We provide services to Indian Country. There is a different feel to Native services than if you were to walk into a state employment office. … We’re just one family member helping another. We try to honor their integrity.”

McKenzie says that even Tribal members who successfully obtain a new job through Vocational Rehabilitation – their case is closed after 90 days of employment – still stop in to talk and seek advice.

“We have an open-door policy and it’s Tribally oriented,” Herrin says.

Herrin says the new arrangement will eventually make for a fluid, smooth process for Native Americans seeking employment services from the Grand Ronde Tribe.

Gibbons says the advantages of convergence will enhance the inter-departmental cooperation necessary to create 477/Vocational Rehabilitation success stories.

“This is a real positive step for the Tribe and Tribal members,” Martin says. “To be a part of this new step is amazing. Having HR above us, it’s amazing to have that communication open.”

“We’re definitely on the cusp of positive movement in the employment fields,” Herrin says. “And we all sense that.”

All six staff members said they are thankful that the Tribal leadership is supportive of the effort to improve employment services to the local Native community, ranging from creating the Tribal Employment Rights Office to building the new Employment Services structure.

Schultz cites attendance at a July 22 open house held at the Tribe’s Portland area office on Barbur Boulevard as further proof of leadership support.

Tribal Council members Jon A. George, a former Vocational Rehabilitation counselor with the Tribe, and Denise Harvey, who previously ran the mentorship program at the Tribe, attended. Also, Tribal Council member Cheryle A. Kennedy, who wrote the original Vocational Rehabilitation grant for the Tribe, attended.

“The people who are in leadership positions are behind employment in the Grand Ronde area. They are really behind providing services to get Tribal members employed. It’s not just smoke; they are backing it up with action,” Herrin says.

“Tribal members do appreciate it,” Rife adds.

Rife, who remembers some of her current clients from when they were children at the former Grand Ronde Grade School, says that the 477 Employment and Vocational Rehabilitation Program is a support system for Tribal members and Native Americans in the seven-county service area (Marion, Polk, Yamhill, Tillamook, Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington).

And, like any good supportive relative, staff members also will occasionally give a client encouragement to keep them on a positive path toward self-sufficiency and long-term employment.

“It’s not a handout, but a hand up,” Rife says. “I like to bring them back to reality because I’ve known them all their lives.”