Ability Works

DeMichael Potts, a client at Ability Works, builds wooden boxes and fulfills orders for their contracts with local businesses.

A helping hand is often all a person needs to get back on their feet.

The Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services recognizes this reality and seeks to meet the needs of Mississippians with disabilities, physical or cognitive.

Through various programs and services, MDRS assists its clients to find and retain employment, as well as gain independence.

Jan Schaffer, communication director for MDRS, said the first step before entering any of their programs is to undergo disability determination services. It is through this service that individuals are assessed for their disability.

“We serve about 75,000 Mississippians through this program every year, and we have about a 96% national accuracy rate on those determinations,” Schaffer said.

Following disability determination services, MDRS has many programs, including the vocational rehabilitation and vocational rehabilitation for the blind. A service used by many clients actively seeking employment is Ability Works.

This program has 15 facilities across the state, one of which is located at Starkville’s industrial park.

Marie Portera, facility manager at Starkville’s Ability Works, said this program is designed to service nearly everyone who has a disability.

“We serve clients with all sorts of disabilities from cognitive, physical and mental disabilities to those in the alcoholic or drug population,” Portera said. “We also serve high school students. We serve pretty much anyone who has a disability and wants to go to work.”

Ability Works functions as a training program for MDRS clients who are referred to them from a vocational rehabilitation counselor. Once the client is sent to Ability Works, they will be assigned work based on the individual’s skills or abilities.

The clients begin their work on site at the Ability Works production floor. This work comes from contracts established with local business or manufacturers and varies throughout the year. Portera said these clients will stay at Ability Works an average of six to nine months.

“While they are with us, we are administering a battery of vocational tests to determine what their vocational interests are,” Portera said. “We are also teaching them good work habits like going to work everyday, getting there on time and following directions.”

They also offer classes to their clients on grooming, driver’s education, interviewing, resume development and job searching skills.

Despite the summer heat, Sylveeta Miller started at Ability Works in June and has since been working diligently on ripsaw from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every weekday.

Miller said she had been to the program once before but had to leave due to a surgery she had undergone. Now, she said she is back to regain her strength and be a provider for her family and three children.

“I want to go to a job but was worried I would be hurting so bad that I wouldn't be able to stay there,” Miller said. “So, being here, I have actually been able to do more standing and am able to tolerate my pain better.”

Once Miller demonstrates her abilities to maintain a work schedule, meet job requirements and be an effective employee, she will begin a new process with job placement services to find a full-time position for that suites her qualifications.

Locally, a major employer for MDRS clients is Aramark, the food services company for Mississippi State University. However, many different companies partner with MDRS across Starkville and Mississippi as a whole.

Portera said her primary goal for clients of Ability Works is for her clients to gain independence and financial stability so they can live a happy and fulfilled life.

“We provide them the stability they need as they transition to work and eventually gain a career,” Portera said. “We want them to know they are capable of success and have a support system helping them along the way.”

While every client does not complete the program or retains a full-time position, Portera said all that matters to her is that at least one person’s life is change for the better and they are able to live a satisfied life.

“Everyone at the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services wants the best for Mississippians with disabilities,” Portera said. “I know that if I help at least one person better their life, that is all that matters.”

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