Staff Associate empowered by disability community and disability leaders

Willie Rolling is one of six staff associates now working at Access Living. Willie began his nine month program at Access Living in mid-November 2012. Prior to working with Access Living, he had heard about Access Living’s work on housing and accessibility. Upon arriving to Access Living, Willie said “I fell in love the first day …I’ve always been the kind of person who loved to help people.” Immersed within the disability community at Access Living, Willie says “working with other people with disabilities…helps me embrace my disability. For him, it is more than a job. He says, “[Access Living] made me look forward to coming to work and helping people.”

Willie and the other Access Living Staff Associates all work at Access Living through a partnership with the Illinois Vocational Rehabilitation Program, which is within the Department of Human Services. The Staff Associate Program allows Access Living to hire a small number of vocational rehabilitation clients with disabilities. While they partner with Access Living staff on organizational issues, they learn job skills that will equip them to find full-time employment after graduating from the program.

On December 8, 2003, Willie was 19 years old, completing his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, when he acquired his spinal cord injury. He took eighteen months off of school to recover and rehabilitate from his injury. During this time, a woman from his church referred him to the Department of Human Services, which sponsored him to go back to school. After earning an associate degree in Computer Science and Networking from Robert Morris College, he landed a job at the Williams Lee Law Firm in the IT department in Willis Tower. In this position he worked in the level one phone center, resolving IT issues over the phone and over the computer. In the midst of the recession, he was laid off. Willie took advantage of his time off by going to physical therapy at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, which provides rehabilitation services to individuals with physical injuries. He also reconnected with the Department of Human Services, tapping into Vocational Rehabilitation Services (VRS). Along with the coordinating the Staff Associate Program, VRS helps individual people with disabilities find and keep jobs that pay a living wage and offer a chance for advancement. Working with a VRS counselor, Willie received many referrals. Nothing worked out until he received a referral to the Access Living Staff Associate Program. He interviewed and was accepted in the fall of 2012.

Every month he is with Access Living, Willie sets goals. In January, he said, “This month, my goal is to be a better speaker. He added that he wanted “to learn more about how to interact with people outside of Access Living.” That month, Willie attended a “Meet and Greet” at Access Living, which provided a great opportunity to pursue that goal. The “Meet and Greet” was hosted by the Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) to give people the opportunity to meet David Hanson, the new director of DRS. It also gave Director Hanson an opportunity to hear from the community at Access Living. Though Willie was reluctant to attend at first, feeling slightly intimidated by the atmosphere, he “clicked with someone with a nephew who has cerebral palsy” and by the end, he was “glad he stayed for the extra two hours.”

Now deep into his internship with the Staff Associates Program, Willie works with Candace Coleman, Access Living’s Youth Community Organizer. Candace has given Willie many new responsibilities as a Staff Associate. He plans for, organizes, and conducts youth meetings, always asking for constructive feedback to further his professional and leadership skills. Willie recently attended a three-day organizer training, after which Willie earned credentials as a certified organizer. He said the training was “intense and fun!” He learned the “lingo” in organizing as well as how to build an organization. Willie said the most important thing the training taught was how necessary it is to allow other people to do things for themselves -- Empowering others.

As a Staff Associate, Willie is having fun while learning and doing a lot. Access Living has really helped him find the power of his own story as a tool to empower others. When Candace and Willie visit vocational schools to recruit more people for youth programs, Willie introduces himself and shares his story with the students.
He has also acquired concrete skills around organizing. Willie has learned to be flexible in scheduling and conducting meetings. He reflects that “when plan A didn’t work, I went to plan B and then C.” He is assisting with different trips that allow students to get involved and maintain relationships with Access Living.

Willie is also a mentor, a job he takes a lot of pride in. He is very passionate about young people being able to come to him for assistance, guidance, and friendship. In addition to the young people he works with, Willie considers himself a mentor to his younger cousins and says that “mentoring comes naturally to him.” He is happy Access Living gives him the opportunity to further develop that passion and skill.

Looking toward the future, Willie hopes to find full time employment and to stay connected with Access Living. He said, “Whether I am working at Access Living or not working at Access Living, I want to find ways to be supportive of Access Living.” Willie said his dream job would be “doing what [he] is doing now…Doing things on the computer and going out and interacting with youth.” Willie said “I feel like this is my dream job. Best of both worlds.”

According to Willie, the most important thing he has learned so far is about the history of the disability rights movement. He recently watched a video about Ed Roberts which debunked many of the myths he had about being a disabled person and inspired him to push himself. To all of the individuals that have worked and are now working toward disability rights, Willie says, “thank you, you have paved the way for me.” No matter what the future holds, when Willie finishes up in July, he will have the confidence Access Living has helped him find for himself.

Piece submitted by Rachel Patterson, Access Living Public Relations Intern