Sadler Bell is living the dream.
Every Tuesday and Thursday morning he goes to WKOW-TV, where he works part-time, performing what to some might seem like mundane tasks such as stocking the printers, collecting recyclables or cleaning up in the studio.
For Bell, however, there’s nothing mundane about his job.
“I always wanted to work in TV,” said Bell, 30, one of about 1,200 developmentally disabled people in Dane County working at similar — if not always as glamorous — jobs.
Bell, who also works every afternoon at the state Department of Administration, came by his jobs through Community Work Services, one of the county’s 15 supported employment agencies.
Nearly 62 percent of working-age adults with disabilities were unemployed in Wisconsin when the latest data was released in 2011, according to census data reported by the Associated Press.
Dane County will spend $12.5 million this year on work services for developmentally disabled residents, with most of the funding coming from state and federal sources.
Those receiving services will earn roughly $3.6 million, or an average of about $3,000 per person.
“Our belief is that in terms of employment services for people with developmental disabilities, the Dane County system has the most workers and the highest percentage of workers in community-based work of any county in Wisconsin,” said Fran Genter, who administers the county’s Adult Community Services Division.
“I think the agencies we serve do a remarkable job with the resources we get,” Genter said. “And by and large, we get very positive feedback from the consumers we serve, appreciating employment and other services they’re able to receive.”
For people like Bell, those services can be a life-changer.
“It’s pretty fun,” he said of his WKOW job, where he’s been the past several months. “I like the atmosphere. It’s more social. I got to go to the holiday party. Brian (Olson), who does the weather, was my ride. And I got to meet (anchor) Amber Noggle. She was really nice.
“I’m proud of the station. This is the perfect fit for me. My girlfriend is excited that I work here. She tells her family and friends about it. She says, ‘My boyfriend works at a TV station … and I love him.’ ”
The station feels much the same way.
“Sadler is a great employee,” said Anna Engelhart, WKOW business manager. “He’s always on time, always completes all of his work, and he’s a great addition to our team. He’s very friendly. He’s always in a positive mood and always willing to help out if we need extra help with anything. He adds a lot of character and a lot of personality.”
And his contributions go well beyond saving other staffers from some busy work.
“We get to open our doors to other people in the community and give them an opportunity to come in and work with our staff,” Engelhart said. “And it gives our staff the opportunity to work with somebody like Sadler and open our eyes and broaden our perspectives.”
Community Work Services has been helping to broaden perspectives around the area for 30 years. The first such agency in Dane County, it was founded in 1984 by Kim Kessler and Betsy Shiraga, who had worked in vocational education in the schools and wanted to extend that support as students graduated and attempted to enter the workforce.
The agency now supports about 80 clients with disabilities that include cognitive disabilities, visual or hearing impairment, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, autism, brain injury, physical limitations, chronic mental illness and behavioral challenges.
The agency partners with more than 90 public and private employers around the county, with matchups being determined largely by the client’s interests and employer’s needs.
Depending on the degree of disability, some clients receive continuous on-site support, others are contacted daily on the job, while more independent workers are provided weekly or monthly support.
The agency had a 98.7 percent job retention rate in 2013 and has maintained a rate of over 95 percent for the past 19 years.
But for the agency, success is measured not so much statistically as in human terms.
“Our clients are contributing and they have a sense of accomplishment,” said executive director Sarah Cutler. “What would they be doing if they weren’t working? To me, work is huge socially. You have that sense of belonging that comes with having a job.”
The story is much the same at Advanced Employment, another longtime supported employment agency that has served Dane County since 1992. Advanced Employment supports 115 developmentally disabled workers, with that number expected to grow to 122 this summer.
“There’s not a lot of competition (between agencies) because we all have a lot of people out there coming to our door wanting services,” said executive director Chris Witt. “We work pretty well together.”
Advanced Employment partners with more than 100 employers, placing multiple clients at a number of sites. Witt emphasizes the importance of matching client skills with employer needs.
“Employers find the most dependable, loyal employee they’re going to find in these individuals because they want to work,” Witt said. “They want to be there and do a good job and make their employer happy and proud of them.”
Witt sees Dane County’s programs as a model for other parts of the state and is excited about the state’s increased financial commitment to workers with disabilities.
Gov. Scott Walker highlighted expanding training and improving opportunities for people who have disabilities during his 2014 State of the State address. He proposed spending $800,000 by mid-2015 to expand on-the-job training programs for workers with disabilities.
And Walker earlier this month signed a bill appropriating $35.4 million to the Department of Workforce Development to provide grants to technical colleges and businesses to enhance job opportunities for disabled people.
“We’ve been doing these kinds of things in Dane County for more than 30 years,” Witt said. “I applaud the governor for his efforts in this area and my hope is that these kinds of programs will be available in more places around the state.”
While there are 15 agencies supporting the developmentally disabled, only three in the county focus on those with mental illness.
By far the largest of those is Chrysalis, founded in 1980 to shift from the trend of providing mental health support in sheltered workshops in favor of community-based employment.
“For us, work isn’t just about making money,” said executive director Dani Rischall. “It provides structure for people and work is seen as part of mental health recovery.”
Chrysalis, which partners with eight mental health treatment teams in Dane County, serves about 70 people in supported employment. All of its clients have been diagnosed either with schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.
Derrick Wallace credits his experience with Chrysalis for turning his life around.
“I got a lot of support from Chrysalis,” said Wallace, 53, a Chicago native who’s been in the Madison area for about 20 years. “I got a job from Chrysalis. I got a positive outlook on life from Chrysalis.
“They have showed me how to accept life for what it is, not for what it should be. It should be a lot better, but it’s not, so we have to go with the flow.”
Wallace, who has been involved with Chrysalis for almost three years, secured a couple of jobs through the agency, first at Goodwill and now at the Dollar Tree store on Thierer Road, where he stocks shelves, cleans and helps direct customers.
“I don’t mess with that cash register, though,” he said. “I can count my money, but I don’t want to count anybody else’s.”
What he does count is his blessings.
“Two or three years ago, I wouldn’t be talking like this,” said Wallace, who talks regularly with his Chrysalis peer support specialist, Matthew Strickland. “I was a radical. I think much more clearly and I want to do what’s right for myself and the community and my fellow man. I have a sense of respect for everyone and accept them for who they are.
“Without Chrysalis, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today. They believed in me and gave me a second chance at life.”
Chrysalis, which has an operating budget of $273,000, employs three employment specialists and three peer specialists. Most of the county’s budget in the mental illness area is targeted for treatment, case management and residential programs.
The three county agencies serve about 100 people, roughly 10 percent of those in need of services, Rischall estimates.
“I’d like to see growth in order to serve more people and give more people that hope and belief in themselves,” Rischall said. “Our presence not only provides people with work, which is so important, but also that hope. A lot of times in mental health treatment, there isn’t that hope.
“What work does for people is give them that reason to keep going and have the opportunity to dream and to think about what else I could be doing with my life.”