Working at Opportunities Inc. has given Watertown resident Jessica Schluter a sense of empowerment, that she can achieve and contribute as part of a team.
Traveling to the state Capitol last week increased that feeling of empowerment, as Schluter and other local residents working for Opportunities met with state legislators to assure that a full range of employment opportunities remain open to those with disabilities.
The occasion was the state “Day of Choice” which took place Wednesday, Oct. 9.
On this day, local advocates traveled as part of the statewide “A-Team,” or “Advocacy Team.”
Founded right in Jefferson County by people working at Opportunities’ Fort Atkinson site and their families, the “A Team” since has become a national movement.
A-Team Wisconsin — a grassroots effort that formally has organized as a nonprofit social welfare organization — has been traveling to the state Capitol annually as part of the “Day of Choice.”
Typically, this trip takes place in March, but this year it was moved to October to coincide with National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
Overall, A-Team Wisconsin sent some 150 people from community rehabilitation programs across the state to the advocacy day, including around 20 people who work at Opportunities’ Fort Atkinson plants.
Opportunities serves people with diverse abilities, including many people with intellectual disabilities who might have trouble finding employment elsewhere.
In addition, the group was accompanied by caseworkers and other Opportunities representatives, as well as family members of those employed through Opportunities.
While at the capitol, the group set up meetings with 14 legislators representing the area, including Scott Fitzgerald (Senate District 13), Steve Nass (Senate District 11), John Jagler (Assembly District 37) and Cody Horlacher (Assembly District 33).
State A ssembly Speaker Robin Vos, recipient of the first Wisconsin All-Star Champion award for supporting a full array of work choices, kicked off the event, along with Joel Kleefisch, former state Assembly District 38 representative, who now serves as the A-Team’s official Government Affairs and Public Relation iaison.
Schluter said she was proud to go as part of the team advocating for varied work options to be open to people like her.
“I want to have a voice in the state decision,” Schluter said. “I want to get what we believe heard. I don’t want to sit here in the workplace and say nothing and have this taken away from me.”
Schluter said her job at Opportunities’ Plant 1 involves assembling Gehl cheese nozzles.
“It was hard at first, but now I can do 1,000 a day,” Schluter said. “The more I do, the more money I make, and I can use that money to pay rent and buy things like Christmas presents.
“I want to be independent and supporting myself,” the Watertown woman said. “I don’t want to have to live with my mom.”
Fellow A-Team member Franklin Hollis, who lives in Fort Atkinson, said he also feels a satisfaction in his work, which involves assembling flip covers to go on windshield washer fluid containers and other containers for automobiles.
“I went to the Capitol to promote our kind of work,” the Fort Atkinson man said. “What would happen if I wasn’t able to do this? I would be sad. I’ve got to be able to get out there and do something.”
Hollis said having the opportunity to address policymakers at the Capitol made him feel powerful and like he had something to contribute.
“I felt stronger when I was advocating,” Schluter added. “This is a great place I am working at and it was important to say that. I love the people I work with and all of my bosses are my friends. They really want me to do well.”
Among those accompanying the workers was Kylie Collins, case manager with Opportunities.
While others have made the trip in successive years, this marks the first time for Collins.
“After only five months on the job, I was over the moon when they asked me to go,” the case manager said. “I have been to the Capitol before, but this was completely different, being able to go into the offices and actually meet with the legislators. And the cause was very important.”
Collins said that all of the legislators seemed receptive and respectful.
“They listened to us and heard what we had to say,” she said.
Robin Kennedy of Opportunities said that the A-team representatives of diverse abilities knew they spoke not only for themselves, but also for their friends and co-workers, some of whom might not be able to advocate for themselves.
Family members of local A-team representatives said they found the experience to be valuable, as well.
Don and Kris Hale said that their family has been in on the effort from the beginning.
“In 2011, along with a few others concerned for our loved ones with significant disabilities, we found the need to start up our A-Team, now a national grassroots organization of intellectually disabled individuals who work in Community Rehabilitation Programs, their parents, family members and caregivers,” the Hales said.
“Currently, we’ve grown from a handful of individuals in Fort Atkinson to 12 chapters in Wisconsin, as well as approximately 20 states and growing. Our goal is to (promote legislation) protecting the right of our loved ones with significant disabilities to work and live where they thrive best.
“We find it necessary to personally visit our state lawmakers in Madison at least once a year to ask for their support in protecting this bill,” the Hales said.
“Our loved ones with cognitive and physical disabilities are among hundreds of thousands around the country who would not be able to work a full-time, healthy, happy and productive week if not for our CRPs with properly trained staff with the heart to help our loved ones accomplish their goals,” the Hales said.
They contrasted the environment at a community rehabilitation program like Opportunities’ as providing the kind of attention and support that is not often offered in integrated community employment.
“We ask for our lawmakers to uphold Bill 14© which allows CRPs to pay a wage based on ability,” the Hales said.
Another parent, Mark Brieman of Fox Lake, offered the following comment: “My daughter, Tara, is 39 years old. She has Down’s Syndrome and lives in a group home in Jefferson.
“She has been wonderfully employed at Opportunities Inc. in Fort Atkinson, for almost six years now,” Brieman said. “This workplace has been the most rewarding and fulfilling part of her life since she started there.”
Brieman said he joined the A-Team movement several years ago to help advocate and support what he considers to be an “awesome employment situation” for his daughter.
“The A-Team movement has grown and developed into a cause that helps us concerned family members, share our stories and support, for all ‘Prevocational Work Setting’ places like Opp. Inc.,” Brieman said.
He noted that a place like Opportunities provides not only mentorship, but also the workplace health support that his daughter needs as a diabetic.
“The A-Team movement helps ensure that she can work where she likes, feels safe, has a ton of friends, is fulfilled and happy, and gets a paycheck,” the parent said. “I am so lucky to have been asked to be a part of the A-Team, which supports these objectives, and that we can share our thoughts with our legislators, leaders, business people, and the general public.”
He said that he and his daughter have enjoyed participating in the “Day of Choice” at the state Capitol several times.
This gives his daughter the chance to personally share her story with the legislators and their staff, he said.
“Every time, I am also impressed by hearing so many other personal stories from others, about their positive experiences in their workplaces,” Brieman said.
“The A-Team really helps get our story ‘out there,’ and helps ensure a full array of employment choices for empowering all individuals with diverse abilities, so they can feel normal and happy,” he said.