Chris Vorwerk has an eye for detail and design. It’s part of what prompted her to start her business, New Ulm-based United Commercial Upholstery, many years ago. She and her husband, co-owner Phil Vorwerk, take great pride in designing beautiful upholstered seats for golf carts and boats. Products you have to see to appreciate. Turns out their ability to look beyond the surface, though, has been one of their most rewarding business and personal ventures.
“When Tom Rivers walked in here and asked if we had interest in hiring a blind individual, I just didn’t really see how it could work in our business. I just didn’t see how the young man he mentioned could help us with sewing and upholstery without having visual feedback,” says Phil.
But he hated to close the door without first discussing it with his wife, so over lunch they talked about it.
“As we talked about it, I thought ’well, it really is pretty low risk. If it didn’t work out, it didn’t work out. It really wouldn’t cost us anything.’ So it was something we were inclined to do if we could find a job for him to do.”
The Vorwerk’s told Tom they could add one more to their 40-employee company. And when they met Justin, they knew right away he would be embraced by the others.
Justin says proudly, ”They said I made a good first impression and were thrilled to try me out.”
Chris says, “I could tell right away Justin was personable and would fit right in with us here. We just needed to find a job that he could do with his disability.”
Justin’s disability is a result of Crouzon Syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by the premature fusion of certain skull bones. This early fusion prevents the skull from growing normally and affects the shape of the head and face. That can affect brain function as well as vision and hearing loss. Justin says he feels lucky; he was born with a mild form of the syndrome so growing up he looked different to others but it didn’t affect him internally. He had full brain function. That is until the seizures started.
“As I grew I did have partial obstruction of my airway which led to sleep apnea which led to seizures,” Justin explains. “Until age 12 when neurologists finally found meds that would control the seizures.
“I went two or three years without them. But when I turned 17 I made up for lost time and had what they call a breakthrough seizure; a seizure that had been building up inside me but no one knew because the meds controlled the symptoms.”
The seizure was so intense it led to a total collapse of his airway and Justin went into cardiac arrest. For 32 minutes his heart stopped. A machine kept his blood pumping, but oxygen was not getting to his brain during that time. When he awoke two weeks later from a medically induced coma, he had an anostic brain injury one result of which was blindness.
After graduating high school at St. Francis in East Bethel, he spent time at the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind in Faribault and then the Minneapolis Vision Loss Resources Center in Minneapolis while he lived with his dad. It wasn’t until he moved in with his mom and her fiance in Sleepy Eye that he was able to make a giant leap forward in his life.
“I got a counselor with State Services for the Blind,” says Justin. “And she introduced me to the MRCI Track To Success program.”
Track to Success is a program that focuses on skill development training for individuals with a variety of disabilities. Part of the day is spent in a classroom working on job-related and soft skills. The rest is spent at a community work site learning hands-on skills in a real-life work setting. The plans are individualized, and a majority of Justin’s group found work at several locations around New Ulm as part of the class. But they just had to find a good fit for Justin. So one afternoon, Tom and Justin hopped in a car in search of a job opportunity. They stopped into United Commercial Upholstery and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Vorwerks found a job Justin could do. For instance, seat covers are sewn inside out, Justin’s job is to turn them right side out. He did it so efficiently, UCU offered him a job after the Track to Success program ended.
“He is so driven, proud to be here, and wants to be independent. His personality is a great fit, the people that work with him care a lot about him and are willing to help,” says his work supervisor Marie Hort.
Now Justin does other duties as well…folders that need filled with fliers, he counts zip ties and nuts and bolts.
“I asked them to let me drive the forklift,” he laughs. “Or maybe start using the staple gun. I’ve used power tools before!”
Justin credits the skills and confidence he has built to the Track to Success program.
“I was happy we did mock interviews in class so I could feel ready for when I interviewed with Marie. In Track they prepared us for like 28 questions, well, apparently there are 29 because Marie asked me one I hadn’t heard before, ‘what are you most afraid of?’ I was honest, I said street crossings.”
The UCU folks offered Justin his job at the Track graduation.
“My mom and grandpa cried they were so proud of me, especially when Chris announced they were going to hire me,” Justin beams.
The Vorwerks are thankful, Tom Rivers walked through their door.
Phil says, “To others I would say to look at it the way you would any other business decision. Do the risk analysis, look carefully at the potential benefits. We’ve found the risks are really minimal, it is controlled and there is a job coach.”
The Vorwerks would also tell employers to pull a group together to discuss options and not look through a narrow glass.
“There are little things people do in a day, things being done behind the scenes that may take up time that could be done efficiently by an MRCI client,” says Chris.
His supervisors say Justin has never been an employment issue, calling his job skills impeccable.
It’s worked out so well for UCU, they are looking for more opportunities to partner with MRCI.
“It’s enlightening to allow an individual with disabilities into your workplace,” says Chris. “They just have to get past that first barrier. In fact, we have an agreement with MRCI now to do more work down the road for us. We may hire a crew to put our fabric samples on rings that we can take to trade shows. It takes visual and dexterity skills that Justin can’t do, but other clients can so we are happy to offer more opportunities to others.”
And they all agree, it’s been a great opportunity for their existing employees.
“The diversity has been good for morale here,” says Hort. “He motivates the others!”