News Article Details

Employment Opportunities has new director

Messenger-Inquirer - 1/29/2019

Jan. 29--Many folks in Owensboro may know Blaire Neighbors from her job at Cravens Elementary School, where she taught autistic children in the highly structured classroom.

But, after much wooing and coaxing, Neighbors switched jobs after the last semester of school ended. She is now the director of Employment Opportunities, a new division of Puzzle Pieces.

Amanda Owen, Puzzle Pieces founder and executive director, launched Employment Opportunities in October. It is a highly individualized supported-employment initiative for people with physical and cognitive disabilities. The service matches a disabled person's skills, interests and abilities with jobs that can become careers.

"When we opened this division, I knew it would take a special person who could make an impact," Owen said of finding the right person to lead Employment Opportunities. "If anyone was going to do it, it was going to be Blaire."

Neighbors earned a bachelor's degree in learning and behavior disorders from Brescia University and a master's in moderate to severe disabilities from Western Kentucky University.

Besides Cravens, she has worked at Wendell Foster, where she met her husband, Dusty Neighbors. He works at Wendell Foster as a certified occupational therapy assistant.

Another reason Owen wanted Neighbors for the job: Neighbors, like Owen, has a brother with special needs, so the two of them share a passion for improving the lives of people with disabilities.

"When you have that passion, nothing holds you back," Neighbors said.

Employment Opportunities was not formed to help Puzzle Pieces clients only. It will assist anyone with a disability in Daviess, Ohio, McLean and Hancock counties.

Neighbors is building the division from the ground up.

The concept relies on the expertise of employment specialists and a multi-phase program. An employment specialist will come with the worker to the job site in the beginning, but will fade out over time.

However, the program includes a long-term support plan, so an employment specialist may check in on a client from time to time for a lengthy period, depending on the needs of the client and employer.

"We want the employer to take ownership of that employee," Neighbors said. "But an employer can rest assured that Employment Opportunities will support the worker."

Presently, Employment Opportunities has one employment specialist, Andrew Law. He has worked at Wendell Foster and Hugh E. Sandefur Training Center, among other places. More employment specialists will be hired as the number of clients increase.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 29, at the Logsdon Community Center, 2400 Friendship Drive, Employment Opportunities will host an introduction workshop so community leaders, teachers, employers and clients can learn about the program.

Employment Opportunities has placed six clients since opening in October. Several others are on a waiting list.

One client is going to work as an auto detailer at Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Another will start soon as a school lunch monitor. The agency paired one client who wanted to be a cook with a job at Lure Seafood and Grille.

Neighbors is working to find work for one client who wants a job at Books-A-Million or an animal care store, and two others hope to find office positions.

Clients must be 16 or older. High school diplomas and GEDs are not required.

In the beginning, Owen expected to serve 20 clients by the end of the first year. "We're going to hit that in the first six months," she said.

Puzzle Pieces officials recently spearheaded the formation of the OBKY Coalition for Workforce Diversity, which will identify barriers to employment for people with disabilities and support them in their efforts to obtain work. The coalition and Employment Opportunities will support each other, Owen said.

Disabled adults represent a rich, untapped workforce. In May, Gov. Matt Bevin signed an executive order that makes employment for people with disabilities a top state priority.

People across the state are noticing strides made in Owensboro. Owen was recently invited to sit on the APSE board. The agency advocates for inclusive employment.

"(Employment Opportunities) has the potential to put us on the state and national level," Owen said.

Renee Beasley Jones, 270-228-2835, rbeasleyjones@messenger-inquirer.com

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(c)2019 the Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Ky.)

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