Held from September 11-14 in Washington, D.C.
Walking into the lobby of the Washington Hilton, Leroy Stanford was instantly impressed. “The hotel was beautiful,” he recalled. There was only one problem: when he reached his room, it wasn’t wheelchair accessible. Trent McFadden insisted they go back to the front desk, where he made sure the mistake was quickly corrected. “I was there to be an advocate, and he was advocating for me!” Leroy said with a laugh.
Both Trent and Leroy are very familiar with the barriers faced by workers with disabilities – whether traveling or at home. Both work in SOAR365’s Business Solutions department and were attending the SourceAmerica Grassroots Advocacy Conference.
Employed on an AbilityOne contract through SourceAmerica, Leroy is a supervisor in the visitor center of Defense Supply Center Richmond. He was joined on the trip to Washington, D.C. by Trent, Assistant VP of Business Solutions’ AbilityOne Business Line, and Camille Jackman, Business Operations Analyst.
And they weren’t alone. More than 60 people with disabilities of all ages and backgrounds came to advocate on Capitol Hill for better employment opportunities. Not all of them had a disability as visible as Leroy’s. “A lot of people shared that their disability doesn’t show on the outside,” said Trent.
But their disabilities became clear when it was time to share their personal stories with policymakers. “Being grown, some of them just moved into their own apartment. We had one guy that said, ‘I can walk by a store, and if I see something that I want, I can buy it.’ That’s a great feeling, because obviously there was a time that he couldn’t,” said Leroy.
Each story was a celebration of how lifechanging employment can be for people with disabilities. “My role was saying what AbilityOne means to me, and how it has made a difference in my life as a person working with a disability,” explained Leroy. “Talking about how I grew into where I am now and how my life has changed. How it gives people like me with a disability an opportunity to provide for myself and take care of my family. And be more independent.”
To prepare for the conference, Leroy completed weeks of training. SourceAmerica helped employees with disabilities who work on AbilityOne contracts find their voice and become comfortable with public speaking. With new confidence, they were ready to share their stories, with the support of their family members and colleagues. Even though each story was different, there was so much that remained the same.
All of the advocates met with politicians to discuss key issues, including a 1% procurement goal for AbilityOne contracts and Social Security Income Reform. The goal of the conference was to personalize these issues for members of Congress so they could better understand how they affect people with disabilities in their home state or districts. The SOAR365 team spoke with staffers for Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, as well as staffers for Representatives Jennifer McClellan and Rob Wittman.
Right now, just 0.55% of federal contracts are awarded through AbilityOne to organizations that provide employment for people with disabilities. If that’s increased to 1%, thousands of jobs will be created. For the Department of Defense alone, SourceAmerica calculates that this would create an additional 16,400 jobs for people with disabilities.
But Trent and Camille were most shocked by what they learned on the issue of SSI reform. Trent described the story of one participant whose low income allowed him to reside in an independent living facility. Each month, when his support checks came in and before his expenses were paid, his mother would have to make calls to assure those in charge that his assets hadn’t gone over the limit. If she didn’t, he would lose his housing. “Where they might not have a support structure or even the time to do that kind of thing, how are they navigating that space?” said Trent.
It’s a struggle Leroy is very familiar with. Before his injury, “everything that I did was physical labor, from finishing concrete to hanging sheetrock.” He had difficulty finding a job as a wheelchair user, but after spending time volunteering, he became determined to keep looking. “Someone told me about SOAR365, I applied, got the job and grew within the company. That’s what I love about it is they gave me opportunities to grow, opportunities to something different, and I love it.”
Even so, as Leroy has advanced within the company, he’s had to give up crucial benefits. “I had a rent voucher that I was blessed with for 15 years,” Leroy said. That’s now gone. He’s also lost Social Security benefits and access to Medicaid. On paper, the decision to work doesn’t always make sense.
“A lot of our folks say, ‘I can only work part-time so I don’t lose my benefits,’” said Trent. It’s a difficult position for anyone with disabilities to be in, and an important issue to discuss with our lawmakers. Trent’s also invited our representatives to come see the work we do at SOAR365 firsthand.
For Leroy, the decision to work came down to our culture. For everything he was giving up, he says, “I don’t know how much I would have worked anywhere else. I loved where I was at from day one. I was welcomed, and everybody treated me with respect, from up top to the people that I worked with. And I loved that.”
Creating an inclusive, welcoming workplace is one of our top goals at SOAR365. Trent, Leroy and Camille were inspired by hearing the stories of other nonprofits at the conference who shared their own solutions for recruiting, hiring and compliance, as well as how to help employees with some of the challenges they face off the clock.
“It’s not just a job. It’s not just a worker for us. And for them, it should be more than just a paycheck,” said Trent. “I think our mission really calls on us to provide some support structure where it’s lacking in a lot of our team members’ lives. We’ve started down that path. It energizes me to keep going.”
The team also enjoyed the beautiful fall weather, exploring Washington, D.C. and having dinner with Jim Quigg, VP of Business Solutions, and John Walker, President & CEO of SOAR365. Being in our nation’s capital together was a great team-building experience, and “it reinforced just how plugged in that we need to be to our community, to our government,” said Camille. “Just like we have the self-advocates, we need to advocate for ourselves as an organization, too.”
Trent is excited to imagine what’s next for SOAR365’s AbilityOne line. “Leroy’s a supervisor which stood out amongst a sea of frontline workers, but there were plenty of quality control managers, data processing, IT, a customer service person that handled ticketing systems. What are some other business lines that we can explore? Not just create initial entry points for folks, but how can we continue to grow people’s careers and create advancement opportunities?”
Leroy agrees. “It is true that everybody can’t do everything, but everybody can do something. So, we’re trying to figure out what can you do? Where you’re lacking or weak in one area, how can we strengthen that? But also, where are you strong at, and how can we make you stronger there?”
At the end of the day, he says, “We want the same thing that everybody else wants. We just want an opportunity.”
Profits from Business Solutions also go a long way toward funding SOAR365’s essential programs for children and adults with disabilities, including career skills training.