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‘They just want to be like everyone else’

Progress Industries job coaches help residents find employment

Debbie Schwarz won’t take no for an answer. For more than 25 years Schwarz, an employment consultant at Progress Industries in Newton has been knocking on doors, introducing herself and working to find jobs for disabled Jasper County residents. An aggressive networker, Schwarz doesn’t hesitate to drop off her card and mention Progress Industries, she’s dedicated to finding the perfect fit for everyone on her caseload.

“Sometimes they won’t give us the time of day,” Schwarz said. “In this business you get to know people, you have to try everything.”

For years, Progress Industries operated an in-house workshop that served as the largest employer of intellectually challenged individuals, but that workshop closed last March after Progress Industries made the switch to a community-based service model. Now, Schwarz says, the focus is on helping the people she serves find jobs in the community, which gives them a greater sense of belonging.

“They want to be like everyone else,” Schwarz said. “They want to move into their own houses, buy a car or Christmas presents, make friends outside of Progress.”

McDonald’s, Walmart and Park Centre in Newton are some of the biggest employers that Schwarz works with. Over the years, she’s worked hard to network with businesses to find out what their needs are, and to demonstrate that her people can fulfill those needs.

“We try to get employers to tell us something that needs to be done that no one else wants to do,” Schwarz said.

At Park Centre, the majority of the dishwashing staff are Progress Industries clients, and Schwarz works hard to maintain the good relationship she has with Mark Howard, the director of dining services at Park Centre. Howard said he’s been impressed with the staff from Progress Industries, praising their dependability and their good attitudes.

“I don’t look at them as being disabled, for the most part they’re very capable, I think they do a great job,” Howard said. “It’s not just a paycheck to them.”

As part of her role, Schwarz helps with making the schedule for her clients, and she also works with them to resolve workplace issues that come up. Every time she places a client, Schwarz is always there on the first day to make sure that everything goes smoothly.

For Sherry Nolan, her job at Park Centre represents a chance to get out of the house more often. Nolan, who uses a wheelchair, moved to Newton last year with her mom to be closer to her sister. After participating in Progress Industries “dayhab” program she decided she wanted to find a job to get out of the house more. Schwarz worked with the staff at Park Centre to find a job for Nolan, and the staff created a position for her in the laundry room. Working two days a week, Nolan folds towels and linens in the laundry room.

“Before I went to Progress Industries all I did was sit at home,” Nolan said.

Nolan plans to use the income from her job to get a new tattoo, as well as buy Christmas presents for her family. Before moving to Newton, she’d worked in a workshop with others who were disabled, but she’s much happier now working at Park Centre. She’s finding herself learning new skills, and having a chance to connect with co-workers.

“My mom always supported me growing up, but now it’s my turn to support her,” Nolan said.

Despite Schwarz’s best efforts, things don’t always go as smoothly as she’d like. Transportation is always the biggest issue she faces, with many of her clients relying on bus service, or rides from friends and family. She often has to troubleshoot issues that clients face at their jobs, staying in touch with them by texting and checking in on them regularly. Schwarz isn’t afraid to stand up for her clients, even pulling one off a job after a supervisor called the client the R-word.

“We’re going to be there to help this person through this,” Schwarz said.

Josh Johnson, who handles scheduling for the kitchen staff at Park Centre said the staff has learned to adjust in order to work with clients from Progress Industries, but Johnson said it’s worth the effort. Intellectually challenged individuals take things harder than others, and criticism can be tough for them, but Johnson said it would be tough to find a more dedicated workforce.

“It’s a rewarding experience, they take a larger sense of pride than other employees,” Johnson said.

Working with Progress Industries clients like Ashley DeZwarte, who has worked in the dishroom at Park Centre for more than five years, Johnson has seen firsthand what Schwarz’s clients are capable of doing. The turnover rate for dishwashing staff has always been high, but Johnson said clients from Progress Industries tend to stay longer, and enjoy their jobs more than other employees.

“They’ve been here for so long that they’re just part of our family,” Johnson said.

Contact David Dolmage at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or

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