Creating Opportunities for Employment Success

Posted on July 23, 2021

Featuring Penn-Mar Career Counselors Tricia Zeltwanger and Tonya Stonesifer.

Belonging and purpose help to give our lives meaning. When we belong and where there is acceptance and inclusion from the people in our lives, from our families and friends to our co-workers, we feel a sense of security, support and identity.

For the men and women with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) who Penn-Mar supports through its Customized Employment (CE) program, belonging is one of the main drivers of their career goals, and according to Penn-Mar Career Counselors Tonya Stonesifer and Tricia Zeltwanger, it can even trump a paycheck.

“Money doesn’t necessarily motivate all of the individuals we work with in finding meaningful work,” said Tonya, a Penn-Mar Employment Specialist based in Maryland. “It’s really about being part of the community, of belonging and being able to do a good job.”

“Sure, they want to make money…we all do,” said Tricia, who is based in Pennsylvania, “but they really want to formulate fun in their everyday lives and create friendships and relationships within their communities.”

Customized Employment 101

Penn-Mar’s Customized Employment program, established more than a decade ago, supports people in connecting their interests, skills, talents, and conditions for success to competitive integrated employment. Simply put, the program works to create a win-win employment opportunity for the job seeker and employer that meets both their needs.

Beginning with the individual and their desire to work, the CE process is designed to take about three to six months and includes Exploration and Discovery – home visits with the individual and his or her family, observations of familiar and unfamiliar tasks, as well as work-based learning experiences designed to highlight a job seeker’s interests, skills and strengths. The Employment Team, which consists of job coaches, support coordinators, job developers and career counselors, works one-on-one with each individual, beginning with learning everything they can about him or her and their career goals.

“We take a very person-centered approach to matching an individual to employment success,” said Tonya. “They’re driving what they do – their destinies and desires.”

Changing Mindsets

Traditionally businesses have been slow to embrace the idea of hiring people with disabilities, but that is changing with each year. For the Employment Team it’s about changing mindsets and educating businesses and the community at large about this untapped talent pool of skillful, reliable people, who want to engage in their communities.

As Career Counselors and Employment Specialists working together with Penn-Mar’s Employment Team and the job seekers, Tonya and Tricia wear various hats, but primarily focus on connecting and establishing relationships with businesses.

“I like to say that our first important priority is the individual we support, and the second priority is supporting the employer,” said Tonya.

The first step the team takes in connecting a job seeker with a potential employer is to research businesses that reflect the individual’s job interests, and then learn everything they can about that business. The second step involves reaching out to the business either by phone or in person – the pandemic made the latter impossible for a good while this past year – and setting up a time to discuss what customizing a job involves.

“We formalize partnerships and relationships with businesses and then find out where their needs are, where they might be backlogged, and where they might struggle to fill various positions,” said Tricia, who regularly networks with a number of business associations in York County and who five years ago, created her own York business networking group. “We then create a position or opportunity that’s a win-win for the employer and individual. It’s not about filling out an application or doing a traditional job search, it’s about creating matches that make sense for the individual’s skills and talents and support the need in a business environment.”

For the most part, the team said, businesses have been receptive to their efforts, and the CE program has been successful in placing more than 100 people in jobs in the community. Persistence, they said, has been key in establishing these partnerships with businesses and changing mindsets.

“We need to get the word out there, and keep it out there,” said Tricia. And as the team sees it, an individual’s success is an employer’s success, and ultimately the team’s too. Everybody wins.”


Are you an employer who needs to fill an open position? Contact one of our Career Counselors: