Perseverance. It is a word, a feeling, an action that is pressed into the hearts of staff members across this state who work with people with disabilities.
The stories are diverse and numerous—Community Support Providers who have partnered with the people they serve and their families to find housing, the right job, mental health services, volunteer work in their communities, and most importantly, a place to call home.
There are too many stories to tell, too many faces to name, but here’s another one: Percell “Rob” Black Bull, a person served by Community Connections, Inc. in Winner, South Dakota. It was during six years of hurdles, frustrations, and victories that staff worked to help Rob rediscover a love of work at a place of employment right for him.
It started when Rob moved to Winner in 2011 and moved out of the South Dakota Developmental Center. “Rob was—and is to this day—one of the kindest, gentlest souls I’ve ever met,” says Melony Bertram, Community Connections Inc. executive director. And yet, he faced obstacles, every single day.
Cost of living
South Dakotans with disabilities relying on social security for income spend on average 78% of their income to rent a one bedroom apartment.
*According to the 2017 study titled "Priced Out - The Housing Crisis for People With Disabilities" done by the Center For Citizens with Disabilities and Technical Assistance Collaborative.
Originally from the Rosebud Reservation, Rob struggled to live independently and find employment. He also faced battles with mental health concerns and substance abuse. He slept too much, was not interested in activities, had few friends and hardly ever left his home. But one day, he mentioned to CCI staff that he wanted to work again, possibly landscaping as he had done in the past. Chandra Day, a CCI employment specialist, listened to his dreams and wanted to help him forge a path toward self-sufficiency.
It took several stops and starts, including several jobs that weren’t the right fit. They eventually landed on Grossenburg Implement, a local shop looking for janitorial staff. Chandra worked with Vocational Rehabilitation to secure a trial position. This time, it stuck, and Rob was eventually offered a part-time position. He is now in charge of the janitorial duties for the entire shop area and the new offices. He runs the sweeper, mops, oil recycling, cleans the bathrooms, and takes out the trash.
‘That’s what we do’
That was four years ago, and Rob is at the same job. He’s proud of his work. He has friends, he’s a valued employee and he shares an apartment with a roommate.
His story underscores the importance of organizations like Community Connections, and more importantly, being able to hire people who will go the extra distance, says Melony. “Rob’s career is one of the most important pieces in his life at this time,” she says. “He feels part of his community—and of our community. He’s built natural supports, his confidence has greatly increased and he’s really on a good path. As we all do, Rob has struggles in daily life and we continue to support those struggles, whatever they may be. That’s what we do.”
Rob’s life is also a vivid example of the need for more affordable housing for people with disabilities. Though Rob found work he enjoyed and was able to save for half a year to be able to move into an apartment by himself, it was difficult to find a place when the time came.
Supporting the general funding needs of organizations like CCI needs to remain a priority for communities, Melony says. If a person they serve is able to find a place to live, and they require comprehensive services and staffing, it has a trickle-down effect on the organization.
There is a shortage of 1,459 units just in Rapid City that have rent of $500 or less per month, an amount that people with developmental disabilities almost always have to stay far under to pay rent with and still have money left for utilities, food, clothing and recreation expenses.
*2018 Black Hills Knowledge Network Study
“When someone wants to move and we are actually able to find an affordable location, it doesn’t just impact one person,” she says. “With our workforce crisis, low wages and turnover it makes it almost impossible to assist one person to move.”
It’s a prime example, she says, of the deep cost of inadequate funding. “It not only affects what we pay our employees but how it also negatively affects the general operations of our agency,” she says.
CCI is just one of multiple agencies across the state that rely on the resources and support of local communities, as well as state funding. Located in Winner, South Dakota, they currently meet the needs of more than 50 people with disabilities, including providing housing, work opportunities, and volunteer opportunities. Opened in 1975 as the South Central Adjustment Training Center, the agency first served eight individuals from the Redfield Developmental Center a year later. At the time, the organization included 13 staff members and provided just two living options, both of which were group homes.
In 2000, they became Community Connections, Inc. with a staff of 65. Their community living options have expanded to six, with only one a group home. Their work centers on community-based jobs with more options for employment.
Assistant Director Kathy Scott says it’s fulfilling to witness someone like Rob experience success with the right resources, tools and people who care. “Rob was without a home, a job, and support,” she says.