Ability Works 2023

Six esteemed West Virginians were honored on Oct. 19 for their hard work and personal determination to succeed in employment with assistance from the West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services.

Through the Ability Works Recognition Ceremony, DRS honors one outstanding consumer from each of our six districts, coinciding with National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

Watch the recorded event or read the stories and watch the videos of the award recipients below. Their stories below are linked to their names here:

Keonea Cooper

Huntington District, State Winner

With a smile on her face, Keonea Cooper helps customers and performs her other job tasks at a Goodwill store in Huntington.

The Goodwill store is part of Goodwill Industries of KYOWVA, a multi-service agency that provides training and employment-related services to people with disabilities, according to Community Work Readiness Coordinator Erica Finster.

After graduating from Huntington High School, Keonea approached the West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) because she was interested in getting a job. DRS Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor Joy Winters explained that Keonea had a stroke when she was an infant, which left her with a learning disability and weakness in some of her extremities.

Winters said that Keonea had been involved in a high school work program, where she had the opportunity to work at different job sites, including a library, some restaurants, and at Goodwill. Her experience at the Goodwill store had been positive, and Keonea really wanted to return to work there.

Goodwill Industries of KYOWVA is a Community Rehabilitation Program that DRS utilizes to provide training services to some of its consumers. Winters arranged for Keonea to participate in several services, including a facility-based work adjustment training program, life skills training, and a community-based work adjustment training program. These services helped Keonea to gain self- confidence, develop stamina for working, and learn specific retail-related job skills.

After completing her training through Goodwill, Keonea obtained part-time employment with the store. Winters believes that Keonea's positive attitude and her performance in the Goodwill training programs helped her to secure employment with them.

Finster agrees with Winters. "With Keonea, one of the fantastic things that I love about working with her is that she began working with me in our work adjustment training program," she said. "And she did so well that we hired her as an employee."

Keonea works as a store retail associate, where she handles multiple duties including assisting with processing merchandise in the back warehouse area and with engaging customers and other merchandising responsibilities on the retail floor.

Finster also stated that Keonea's responsibilities have grown since she started working there. She often contributes to the training of new people who are being introduced to the workforce and serves as a good example of what someone can accomplish.

Keonea is happy with her job and plans to stay there indefinitely. She really enjoys helping people at the store, and she is proud of her accomplishments, the most recent of which was earning her purple belt in karate.

"The feedback that I've gotten from both Keonea and her mom is that she's really happy about her employment, and she gets a lot of fulfillment from what she's able to do," said Finster.

Keonea contributes a lot to the store. "Keonea just brings a shining light into the store. One of the things Keonea does is she's always eager to help and always eager to interact with the customers," Finster explained. "She's friendly and always has a smile on her face. Regardless of what kind of day you're having, Keonea is going to do something to make it brighter."

Amber Sweet

Charleston District

Amber Sweet wanted to help people, and she accomplishes that goal every day.

Amber works as a crisis counselor for First Choice Services in Charleston, and she has been there for a little over a year.

According to Terrance Hamm, Director of First Choice Services' 988 program, this non-profit organization operates several helpline services throughout West Virginia and several other states. The 988 program is a part of a larger national mental health effort to provide services for people who are having crisis around suicide throughout the nation.

Hamm describes Amber as a great resource for people in crisis. "So, in her role, she works with people through chat and text all over the nation who reach out to us for support, emotional crisis, having thoughts of suicide, in the act of suicide attempt," he explained. "Or it can be a third party looking for emotional support for a family member or an organization looking for resources for someone struggling with thoughts of suicide or some type of emotional crisis."

Amber's educational background helped her to earn the position at First Choice Services, and she credits the West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) with helping her to pursue her love of learning.

DRS Branch Office Manager Betty Parsons explained how Amber came to DRS when she was in college for assistance with obtaining her education.

Amber was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). She was enrolled at Glenville State University and later transferred to University of Charleston, where she obtained a bachelor's degree in psychology in 2021.

Amber had attended Roane County High School, and she admits that she struggled a lot throughout high school.

Parsons described Amber as positive, helpful, and pleasant. She believes her best qualities are that she does not give up easily and she is very determined to succeed. At her job, Parsons feels her problem- solving skills and ability to adapt are an asset to her employer and the people she is trying to help.

Amber's experiences have helped her to grow more confident in her ability to learn, and she's planning to pursue a master's degree starting this fall.

Amber appreciates DRS' assistance with her education and the encouragement and support Betty Parsons provided to her as she pursued her degree.

Amber is happy to be making a difference in the lives of others. "I love the fact that we get to impact the mental health field and help people with their mental health issues, and I'm really proud that I get to dedicate my life to helping people," she said.

Tyler Heffner

Clarksburg District

Tyler Heffner has worked very hard to get where he is, and he continues to be diligent in his quest to meet his long-term goals.

Tyler attended Lewis County High School, where he graduated in 2015. He had been diagnosed with autism when he was in middle school. Some of his problem areas were staying organized and on task.

While he was known for being quiet and shy, Tyler was very smart and was in the gifted program in high school.

Tyler's high school teachers referred him to the West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) to help him prepare for employment.

According to DRS Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor Jamie Paulhamus, Tyler had a strong interest in science and wanted to pursue higher education to ultimately work in the field of aerospace engineering.

She reported that DRS helped to arrange some college tours and even a visit to the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation (IV&V) Facility, home of NASA's IV&V Program, in Fairmont. This facility contributes to the safety and success of NASA's highest-profile missions by assuring the software being used performs correctly.

Tyler chose to attend West Virginia Wesleyan College, and in 2021, he obtained his bachelor's degree in environmental physics.

DRS assisted Tyler with tuition, books, and supplies, as well as computer equipment and with an ergonomic setup for his dorm room to help him to study.

While DRS helped him with developing his résumé and his job search, a job lead from a friend aided Tyler with landing a job at FCX Systems, a manufacturing company, in Morgantown.

FCX Systems' Director of Production Robert Clark explained that the company manufactures solid state frequency converters, which are primarily used in the aircraft industry.

Tyler works as an assembly technician at FCX, and he builds the equipment the company sells. Tyler's job involves assembly work, wiring work, and unit preparation for shipping.

Tyler made an impression at his initial interview. "I was very interested in Tyler when I first interviewed him. He just seemed to have an underlying interest in learning what we did," Clark said. "A lot of people come here for employment. I think Tyler came here to learn more than just the job."

Clark believes the biggest asset Tyler contributes to their workplace is his drive to produce something tangible. He has learned the necessary skills to do the job and has become proficient at what he does. Not only is he competent in his work, but he really enjoys the hands-on nature of the job. For Tyler, his favorite part about college was the hands-on learning experiences that took place in his science lab classes.

Tyler is extremely grateful to DRS for the assistance with college. He was overwhelmed by the process, and it was a huge help to have guidance on completing applications and other requirements from year to year.

Tyler feels that working at FCX brings him closer to his dream of working around aircraft and spacecraft. His future plans involve furthering his education to see if he can ultimately get into a position that involves manufacturing engines, either for spacecraft or aircraft.

Andrew Rager

Wheeling District

Andrew Rager's determination to do more and a thriving partnership helped him to foster job skills and self-confidence so he could meet his employment goal.

Anxiety and an intellectual disability have made things difficult for Andrew throughout his lifetime. He grew up in Wellsburg with his mom, dad, and his two brothers.

After graduating from Brooke County High School in 2002, Andrew was able to get a job, but it was in a sheltered employment setting, which meant he worked part time and was paid less than minimum wage.

The West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) annually reaches out to individuals with disabilities working in sheltered settings to make them aware of available services and supports to help them find jobs in competitive, integrated settings. After hearing a presentation by two DRS employees in 2019, Andrew contacted DRS because he was interested in finding a different job. He wanted full-time work in the community, but he needed help.

According to DRS Senior Rehabilitation Counselor Kaylee Carpenter, Andrew wasn't sure what he wanted to do or what he could do. So, she referred him to Goodwill Industries, which is a Community Rehabilitation Program that frequently provides assessment and training services to DRS consumers.

Carpenter wanted Goodwill to begin with a work skills assessment, so they could get a better idea of Andrew's job skills. During this assessment, Andrew worked in the Weirton Goodwill store where he learned a variety of retail skills, including processing clothing and running a cash register.

After that, Andrew received work adjustment training, where a Goodwill job coach worked one-on-one with him at Kroger, which is one of their business partners. During this one-on-one training, Andrew learned specific job skills for working in a grocery store, and he developed better soft skills like communicating with others.

Frequently described as quiet and shy, Andrew became more self-confident and comfortable with what he was doing as his training progressed.

Peter Bortz, Andrew's former job coach, explained that Andrew spent about six months to a year applying for jobs after he completed his training. But it was through his own initiative that Andrew applied for and secured employment with Kroger.

According to Kroger Store Leader Keith Leshuk, Andrew works as a courtesy clerk where his primary responsibilities include bagging groceries, retrieving shopping carts, and providing good customer service.

Bortz believes Andrew's best personal characteristic to be his willingness to try new tasks despite his insecurities.

Leshuk has 24 years of experience with Kroger but is fairly new to the Wellsburg location. He explained that since he started at the store, Andrew has been trained on the self-checkout technology, and he often manages four registers there.

Leshuk describes Andrew as a dependable employee. He doesn't call off, and he takes care of the customers.

Andrew is extremely happy working at Kroger and believes his coworkers and managers are the best part of his job, referring to them as a second family.

Carpenter is very proud of Andrew for everything he has accomplished and for not being afraid to try to succeed at doing something different. DRS and Goodwill supported him along the way, but Andrew did the hard work, she explained.

Not only did Andrew meet his goal of finding a new job, but he recently took on more hours at the store and is now working full time.

Andrew is proud of his accomplishments, especially for being the one who called 911 five years ago when his mom had a stroke, which helped to save her life.

He also has not given up on trying new things. He has obtained his learner's permit and is working toward getting his driver's license.

Andrew is very happy working at Kroger and plans to stay there. "I love it, love it, love it with exclamation marks," Andrew said enthusiastically.

John McDowell

Beckley District

When faced with several challenges, some people choose to quit. But John McDowell used his own personal strength to persevere through adversity.

John has several disabilities, including some mobility issues, which make walking difficult, especially on uneven surfaces. He also has a speech disorder, which makes communicating with and being understood by others very difficult.

John had a job that he liked, but when he was in his late 50s, he fell at his workplace. He had to be off work for an extended amount of time, and when he was released to return to work, his employer decided not to bring him back because of concerns relating to his safety.

The West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) had previously helped John address disability- related barriers so he could find work. So, John returned to DRS for assistance with finding a new job because he was determined to work.

According to DRS Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor Jamie Lafferty, John had previously had a functional capacity evaluation that helped them determine the type of work that he could or could not do, and they used that to help with a new job search.

DRS enlisted the help of Open Doors, a Community Rehabilitation Program, to assist with John's job search. They helped John with job leads, completing applications, and with meeting with prospective employers.

John's job search ended up being lengthy, and the onset of the pandemic in 2020 did not help matters.

However, the right opportunity came along just at the right time.

Greenworks Recycling in Lewisburg had an available job opening, and DRS approached them about John participating in an on-the-job training program, which was financially supplemented by DRS and gave the employer the opportunity to see John's work capabilities. The venture turned out to be successful for Greenworks and John.

According to Greenworks' General Manager Myles Yates, John works as a recycling technician and is responsible for sorting a variety of plastics that come into their facility.

DRS utilized a job coach from Lifeworks, another Community Rehabilitation Program, to help John learn the job tasks.

Greenworks does provide John with minor workplace accommodations. The primary accommodation allows him to use a stool so that he can sit when necessary to do his work, which alleviates some of his mobility challenges. They have also determined ways to address communications barriers.

Yates describes John as driven and detail oriented. "You can't just speed through this job," he explained. "You have to take the time to make sure things get to the right places, and he really is committed to that."

Lafferty believes John is one of the most determined people he has ever met. He had set his mind to finding a new job, and he has accomplished that. Lafferty also credits him with having a strong work ethic.

John is very happy to be working again. He gets bored sitting at home.

John enjoys the work that he does, and he likes his coworkers and supervisors.

Yates is thrilled that John is being recognized for his accomplishments. "He's certainly put in the effort and hard work," he said. "And, frankly, this is not the easiest job, and there are some blood, sweat and tears involved, and he's certainly done that."

Lafferty is encouraged by John. "I kind of feel like John makes you want to do better," he explained. "I mean he makes me want to do better either at my job or for my other clients. He is a good example and that is what I would say about John."

Ryan Willis

Huntington District

For Ryan Willis, a positive, can-do attitude helps him to handle his job and his personal challenges.

Ryan was born with spina bifida, which is caused when a baby's spinal cord fails to develop properly in the womb, and it resulted in Ryan's legs being paralyzed.

He grew up in Piedmont, located in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle. He attended Keyser High School, graduating in 2012, and went on to attend Potomac State College.

Ryan's mom works for the West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS), so she referred him for vocational assistance when he was in high school, explained DRS Branch Office Manager Sherry Faulk.

According to Faulk, Ryan has been a DRS consumer on more than one occasion since he was in high school, and he has received a variety of services, including vocational counseling and guidance, job placement, and transportation assistance.

DRS first assisted Ryan with getting a job, and then later, DRS helped him with job retention services, which involved modifications to his wheelchair accessible van, so he could continue getting to work. Ryan is a store manager at Hampshire County Special Services Center.

Hampshire County Special Services Center is a Community Rehabilitation Program, which is frequently utilized by DRS to provide certain assessment and training services to consumers, and it also offers employment opportunities in a variety of areas.

According to Jillian Valentine-Bell, a representative of Hampshire County Special Services Center, they operate a store that sells new merchandise, and that is where Ryan works.

Valentine-Bell described Ryan's responsibilities as running the cash register, pricing and stocking merchandise, cleaning merchandise display areas, and providing customer service.

Ryan's favorite tasks are pricing merchandise and getting to know the customers.

Faulk explained that Ryan did not need a lot of training for the job. "Ryan is a quick learner and can kind of do pretty much anything you throw at him," she said.

Valentine-Bell agrees with that and credits him with being able to train others in the store.

Faulk believes Ryan is effective at his job because he is good at working with people. "He has a great personality and can get along with just about anyone," she said.

Ryan feels his biggest accomplishment, thus far, is living to be 30 because doctors advised his mom that he would not make it that far. He has survived a MRSA infection, kidney failure, and a blood clot that went through his heart and into his lungs, causing him to code for about 20 minutes.

As for plans for his future, Ryan intends to go with the flow. He has never let his disability stop him from doing what he wanted. He just has to go about it a different way sometimes.

According to Faulk, Ryan is easygoing and adaptable, and he can accomplish whatever he wants. "He has always just picked up and went and did what he wanted to do and doesn't let anything hold him down," she said.