People with disabilities are twice as likely to be unemployed compared to those without a disability.
Beyond26 is one of several organizations trying to change that. Established in 2018, the faith-based nonprofit's mission is to find jobs and volunteer opportunities for individuals with disabilities.
Age 26 is a critical time for people with developmental disabilities in our community because it is the age when Michigan’s state-supported education system ends, leaving families and caregivers struggling to find support and structure for their adult child.
Beyond26 provides customized employment services that match job seekers with employment based on their skills and situation as well as pre-employment services that address job readiness concerns. Once a client is matched with a company, the organization provides follow-up and support services.
This spring, Beyond26 placed its 100th jobseeker with an employer. Here’s a snapshot of six of those success stories.
‘She’s really grown’
Berdene Shoemaker describes herself as kind and a good friend. She enjoys working with others. She has worked at several restaurants, including Burger King, Culver’s, and Bob Evans. These days she's working at Brann’s Steakhouse & Grille on South Division Avenue in Wyoming. Shoemaker used to bus, do dishes, and help clean the dining areas at these restaurants but had to quit when she was moved to a new group home.
"Beyond26 got me the interview, and the job coach came and helped me for a while," says Shoemaker, who has worked at Brann’s since April 2021.
"I’ve made a lot of friends for life. My manager is my favorite,” says Shoemaker, who used some of her earnings to buy a tablet. “I buy stuff to make more keychains and cards. I like getting to leave the group home and get out of the house.”
Kirk Blohm, her manager at Brann’s, has noticed Shoemaker’s growth as an employee since joining the staff.
“Berdene is a great addition to the family,” Blohm says. “I can see her learning and becoming more independent every day. She used to ask a lot of questions, but she is learning to make judgment calls on her own, which is awesome. She’s really grown and moved forward since starting here.
“Berdene is awesome and we all love her here. She’s part of the family, and we take the word family really seriously. Some places throw around the word family, but I protect my restaurant family fiercely and I make sure they’re safe. Berdene has a few close friends here that help her every day, and we love her.”
Bianca Guerra is a very happy person who gets along with everyone and has a positive attitude. She likes to organize things and loves routine, explains Tena Mengistu, her caregiver.
She has worked at Beyond26 Paper Shredding in Grand Rapids since September 2021.
The position is a good fit for Guerra, who can get distracted easily and needed a one-step job where she could sit and take breaks as needed while still being around other people and fulfilling the social aspect of her life that was missing. These accommodations are obviously quite limiting in a job search, which is why Guerra was an ideal candidate for the Beyond26 document shredding program.
Guerra regularly attends the Beyond26 Gathering Place, which is a monthly social gathering for individuals with disabilities. She attends with four other women from her group home. They are always happy for the chance to socialize and leave the house, Mengistu says.
"Bianca is all smiles every day. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her upset. She keeps things fun and friendly around the document shredding office, and her friendship with her coworkers is a reminder that a good work family is something that we shouldn’t take for granted," says Emily Voorhees, one of her supervisors. "Coming to work on days that I know I will be working with Bianca adds a little bit of excitement to the morning."
Adds her other supervisor, Andrea Knoor: "I have to say, you have never seen a group of young adults as happy to come to work as our employees are. They absolutely love shredding! They really work hard and are able to shred several pounds of paper every day. They gain the satisfaction of a job well done, but maybe more importantly, they are making social connections with each other. It’s wonderful to see new friendships develop here."
‘I like to work’
Beyond26 helped Drew Bradbury land a position at Panera Bread on Alpine Avenue NW in Grand Rapids as a busser in 2019. He was let go from his position during the COVID-19 shutdown but returned after businesses reopened.
"I like to work," Bradbury says. "At Panera, I clean tables and take dishes to the back."
The Panera position is a good fit for Bradbury, who is a people person, says his mom, Kim Bradbury. Outside of Panera, he's a hip-hop D.J. who is active with Special Olympics, taking part in skiing, running, soccer, and poly hockey.
"We wanted an environment where he could interact with others while doing a job," she says, adding that Beyond26 opened the door for Drew to get an interview. "Drew is proud to say he works at Panera, and he does a good job there. He gets very excited when he gets a tip. He likes to go to Meijer to get a frozen Coke with the money."
His supervisor, Bonnie Vermeulen, says Bradbury is an important part of the staff: "We are very happy to have Drew around. The staff is very supportive of keeping him on track. Drew always checks to make sure things are completed and lets me know. At first, he needed a little help now and then, but he is doing great."
‘Make my own routine’
"I’m a people person. I can make any situation fun. I’m very determined and I don’t let anything keep me down," says Jason Jordan, who works at J&H Family Stores in Wayland.
He was looking for a position that let him be independent "but where I still got to work around people. I wanted to have the ability to make my own routine while at work."
Beyond26 helped him land an interview with the family-owned West Michigan business, and he was hired about two years ago.
"It feels good to actually earn my money,” Jordan says. “Before I was dependent on others, but I like to be able to work for the stuff that I have.
“My favorite part, though, is the socialization and my coworkers. Not only for the customers, but for the employees and everybody here. Everybody is friendly."
His manager, Katie Smith, describes Jordan as a team player.
"He helps everybody out, especially on days that we’re all struggling,” she says. “He offers to take work off of everybody’s plate. The customers love him. We treat Jason just like anyone else.”
‘I love my job’
Joseph Guerra wanted to work at a supermarket. Beyond 26 helped the 18-year-old land a job in Meijer in Wyoming this summer.
“Beyond26 helped me find the right job efficiently, giving me suggestions and support,” Guerra explains. “It's a new experience for me. I keep my time busier, and it's a step towards becoming an adult. I love my job. I enjoy my time there, keeping busy and meeting new people.”
Meijer recently was named the best place to work for disability inclusion from the Disability Index for the sixth consecutive year.
The partnership with Beyond26 has been helpful to the Walker-based Midwest retailer, says Seth Major, unit director in distribution for Meijer.
“Diversity and inclusion and working with the disability community has always been important to Meijer, so we look for leaders who value that,” Major says. “Any team member that comes in who’s eager to work, who’s engaged, is a joy for us. We sure appreciate having these jobseekers work with us. It’s been a great experience.”
‘Fits in with everybody’
Amy Bunce worked at Gerber for 25 years washing dishes in their café until the business shut down.
“I was really bored. I didn’t have anyone to talk to,” says Bunce, who told Beyond26 that she wanted a paid part-time position where she would get a chance to be social. She likes cleaning and organizing, stocking, and greeting.
Making more social connections was also important because Bunce is social and she loves to learn and be a part of a team, says her sister, Beth McGrady.
Beyond26 used those criteria when reaching out to the general manager at the Tropical Smoothie Café in Grand Haven. The nonprofit provided a
summary of Bunce’s skillset and accommodations and arranged the interview for her. Since she was hired in May, the nonprofit has followed up with check-ins.
“I love it so much,” she shares. “I get to leave the house because I get bored at home sometimes. My manager is really nice. I also got a tip today. I like to spend my paycheck on clothes and bought a new pair of glasses.”
The feeling is mutual. Her manager, Brooke Brady, has glowing reviews of Bunce and her work ethic.
“Amy is awesome. She has a great personality and she is always happy to help. The crew likes her a lot, and she’s always giving compliments. She really fits in with everyone,” Brady says. “She loves her lunch time, so I always make sure she gets those. Her sister and brother stop in a lot to have lunch with her, so it’s nice having them around as well.
“She’s a joy. We’re just really happy that we were able to provide this job for her. She’s been taking on more tasks and learning a lot. She does some dishes, stocking the dining area, bagging food, and sorting fruit. She’s doing more and more.”
This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.