“Work is essential…it is the glue that binds us to society.”-Bob Harvey, Founding Director of Independence Center
Great quote right, but what in the world does it mean?
I had no idea who Bob was or what that quote meant. But, perhaps you’ll read this just long enough to start to understand what I came to believe he was talking about.
My name is Mark and I’ve been a member since November of 2009. I wouldn’t exactly consider me the “Poster Child” for the Independence Center; but, I hold a special place in my heart for the place. For those of you that know me, I tend to tell it like it is and I will do my best not to disappoint the reader.
I didn’t come to the Independence Center on a winning streak. I was broke, homeless, and just out of one of my many hospitalizations for mental health issues and suicide attempts. Like a lot of people with mental illness, I had been struggling to get well for a very long time after many failed attempts at a correct diagnosis and correct medication. All I wanted from the Clubhouse was to use the computer and find a job. During my periods of homelessness, it was a warm place during the day to hang out. As far as doing anything for anybody else, forget about it – that was the mind set at the time. Sadly, this mindset would persist for 5 or so years and it was painful…for everyone. I mean everyone!
During those five years of wandering in my morass of self-pity, I went on SSDI and lived in an RCF. If that had not happened; I would be dead. I worked very little and attended the Independence Center with more regularity. But something was still missing. Once the disability kicked in there was relief for a while. However, I kept telling myself this is only temporary. The truth was I didn’t know how long I would be on disability and I was frightened. I had a few starts and stops at part-time jobs I found on my own and T.E. jobs.
Somewhere around mid to late 2014 I was attended by Dr. Charles Conway at Midwest. He correctly diagnosed my illness and put me on a medication regimen which has afforded me an excellent quality of life. Additionally, he also prescribed other actions to take that were non-negotiable. One of those actions was daily attendance at the Clubhouse and to get involved in the Work Ordered Day. He said you’re never going to fully recover if you don’t get off the bench, get in the game, and get busy. If you don’t, you can expect your life to be a cycle of hospitalizations, more medication, and a premature death.
I went back to my unit, the Street Level, and attend the morning meeting – thought I was going to hurl orange. It was so disorganized. There was an agenda; but, by the time you got past the side conversations and cross talking it was time to hand out chores. I would take the bathrooms to hide out but Sam, Alex, or Pete, or Tim would find me. That used to piss me off. Come to find out, isolation kills a lot of us with mental illness. If you are serious about getting well, clean the bathrooms. Scraping a surprise off the floor from the night before with Sam or taking a selfie of the stopped up stall before sending off to Pat or Tom entitled “Wish You Were Here!”, that my friends is real team work and relationship building. As time went on, I became part of the unit. I was the cross talker and the disorganization at the meeting. Oddly, things started to make sense; there really was order and purpose to the Work Ordered Day. The days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years. I started giving tours and found out there was quite a bit the Clubhouse had to offer. Before I started working, I got involved with Colleague training.
In the fall of 2017, a T.E. was opening up at one of our partners, Equifax in Earth City. I had been attending the employment meetings on Wednesday since I wanted a job. I approached Missy and Kristen to see how I went about applying and they explained the process. It took a little while to get on as the company has a lengthy background check. The position Independence Center has at Equifax is called Independence Center – Intern. Never at 55 years old did I think I would be an intern; however, it worked for Robert De Niro in “The Intern”. What we do here is help our client’s with their human resource functions. The job that the T.E. person does is to channel all the misdirected documentation to the appropriate representative. All documents are time sensitive and confidential. In addition to these duties, I was able to acquire additional skills by asking for more work in my down time. They taught me how to do wage audits. I learned how to APEX claims (this is the very beginning of how documents start to process in our systems.) The company also offers online trainings and classes you can take if your work is caught up. I was able to earn my Yellow Belt in 6 Sigma Lean processes. So if you’re interested, there really is more to do than just forward emails. All you have to do is ask how can I be of service?
I wanted to get off of disability but wasn’t quite sure how to do it. I’d stabilized quite a bit from the train wreck poor Teri Portello had to deal with. Chris Brannaman had the pleasure of working with me. The truth is there had been others that had gotten off disability; some successfully, some not. And, I had supporters and I had others. After I was 3 or 4 months into my T.E. job, my boss and I had a talk one day. She said so how do you like the job? I said I like it and I almost think I understand what we do here. She laughed. She then connected to dots better. Even now I still have questions and so does everyone else as we are constantly innovating to meet our client’s and consumer’s needs. Our tag line is “Powering the World with Knowledge”. I explained my plans for getting off of disability and wanted full-time employment. She asked if I would consider looking at Equifax. I said of course and that I had looked at the job openings. I further explained that even though I had a degree and it didn’t look like I had the qualifications to do the work or experience. She smiled and said, no one knows how to do what we do until we train you. I’d like to pause the job stuff here to talk about the SSDI stuff going on you need to know about.
It would be in your best interest to contact the Social Security office and request information on the Ticket to Work program. There is a clock and it is time and dollar sensitive. It is extremely important that you pay attention to the details and the rules Social Security provides. I hate to say this; but, it felt at times that the system, namely Medicaid, was actually working against me getting out of the system. Your community support person or plan coordinator can help you. Your case will be different from everyone else’s, trust me! I can also tell you the Social Security office on Watson Rd. was very helpful. When I finally submitted my paystubs that would show that I in fact earned too much to get SSDI, it was a little scary. At the same time, it felt liberating. I felt like I was earning my own way. I had gotten to a point in my recovery where I knew I was well enough to work. Therefore, I didn’t need the disability any longer. I needed disability without question as I was sick and could not work. By the Grace of God and a lot of help from the Independence Center,
some friends outside of the center, and Equifax I was able to achieve my dream of independence.
As the T.E. position was ending, my supervisor at Equifax started coaching me on interviewing at the company. It had been a long time since I interviewed for a professional job. We did mock interviews and rehearsed. And gratefully I was able to secure full-time employment. My first position was Unemployment Insurance Specialist and I did that for about 6 months until the company changed directions and re-tasked my team. I am now called a Client Service Representative – Senior. My department now supports our Work Opportunity Tax Credit department and we also provide information to all state agents on unemployment claims. I have had to learn a multitude of Equifax systems and protocols. Even though I wasn’t
full-time when I started November 6, 2017 in the T.E. position, the company considered me to have one year of service as of that date last year. Why was that significant? As a full-time employee, you are required to contribute 5% of your salary to the 401K and you start right away. At your one-year anniversary, you are vested and the company will match your contribution up to 7% this year. In my past
employment, it usually takes a few years to get vested; meaning if you leave the organization, you can not only take your money you can take their money. The company is saying they trust you to stay with them even after a year if you catch my drift.
Today I have a compass and I have direction. Because of Independence Center, Dr. Conway, Laura, Alex, Chris, Alex, Pete, Paul, Teri, Michael, Sam, Tim, Kara, Alison, Joe, Pat, Tom, Andrea, Missy, Kristen, and I’m running out of time and space; I could not have made it. I was wandering; I was unglued like Bob Harvey was talking about. Not that work is everything; you are not your job. But when I walk away from work at night and I get to fight traffic on I-70; if feels awesome. Believe it or not I feel wanted, needed, and accepted here at Equifax.