Life after high school graduation can be challenging for young people who are making profoundly influential decisions about pursuing higher education or opportunities in the job market.
That transition into the adult world can be especially difficult for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, who often jump from the high school experience into a broader society, where chances to pursue a productive and fulfilling life for themselves are often very limited.
“They’re desperate to be out in the workforce, just like any other person looking toward all the things that come along with having a job — more opportunities to learn and grow and develop as a person,” said Geena Mattox, state director of Nevada Best Buddies.
“If you think about the process for a person who is without a disability, we go to elementary, middle and high school. Then, in all likelihood, will be going to a college or university setting, or we are going to get a job. This is the same thing we want from our participants. I want to see that they have the same opportunity.”
The Miami-based, nonprofit organization focuses on mentoring people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It was founded in 1989 by activist Anthony Shriver and now operates more than 1,800 chapters in more than 50 countries.
“It is about creating inclusion through friendship,” Mattox said. “We are an organization that is looking for opportunities for students and citizens with intellectual and developmental disabilities to come together in friendship.”
Mattox said she often visits the homes of participants who have just graduated from high school and feel suddenly directionless.
“Their friends are going off to college, and the student does not have a plan,” she explained. “So for me, the employment program is really critical. Because it is tragic to leave high school with no plan, no idea of what you were doing next. We don’t want to graduate to couch potato — we want to graduate to ‘what is next for me?’
One of the functions of Best Buddies is to help its participants find meaningful employment after their school careers are complete. Nationally, 80 to 85 percent of people with intellectual or developmental disabilities are unemployed, according to Mattox, but associations with Southern Nevada companies are helping to increase the odds for local job seekers.
“It is not because they do not want to work,” explained Wilson Edgell, MGM Resorts International diversity and disability outreach programs manager.
“A lot of times they’re not given the same opportunities. They have the ability to demonstrate to recruiters — as well as hiring managers — that they have skills. They do not need a handout; they just need a hand-up.”
“Without the (corporate) support we would be lost,” Mattox said. “It really depends on what their mission focus is with the organization.”
Edgell said MGM managers are continually impressed with the dedication and loyalty often displayed by employees that have been attracted to the program.
“They really enjoy coming to work each and every day,” he noted. “We find that many of them never miss a day, never call in sick. It does not matter the shift. They are there, and they are really excited to have the opportunity that we give them.”
MGMRI’s outreach program began in 2014. Edgell said there is no way to track internally how many employees have been attracted as a result but is confident the numbers are significant.
“Having someone self-identify as having a disability may not be something they want to do,” he explained. “They don’t want to have that over their heads, as it may be a limitation. They are employees, just like everybody else.”
Edgell is adamant that the program is not simply a form of social charity, but an opportunity for the company to recruit lasting, quality workers for jobs that are often hard to keep filled.
“We will assess a person based on whatever that particular level of disability is,” Mattox said.
“We can speak to them and identify the kind of working environment they might be best suited for. We have an entire process that we go through, in terms of getting a participant job-ready, including maybe even shopping with them for clothing, helping them build their resume, background check, all that sort of thing.
“And then at that point, we will go with them into the interview. Help them get on board with the company and provide support.”
She said typically a Best Buddies representative might be on site to assist new employees an entire first day, then spend increasingly less time on subsequent days until the participant is comfortable with the position and is able to rely on peer support.
“If someone comes to us and wants a job, we are certainly going to work to get them a job,” Mattox said. “And there are jobs to be had. We have plenty of opportunities.
“Our hope is that, eventually, we will work ourselves out of a job,” she said, meaning that the goal is to create a culture in which the assistance of an advocate is no longer necessary.
‘It is transformative’
“MGM has lobby ambassadors,” Mattox said. “It can get really intense in the lobby. There is wait time and when you have big conventions in town, it can be really stressful.
“You immediately meet one of our participants, and they are there to help you. To answer questions. And there is this joy that they exude. It is really hard to stand in line and be frustrated because you are waiting. You buy into the culture of that environment. And I think it is transformative.”
“It is really an incredible thing to see someone feel so much pride in their job,” Mattox said.
“We have a girl (at Southern Nevada Best Buddies) who works at MGM resorts at the Mirage. Her name is Dominique. She is just an amazing young woman.
“She has just transformed the lobby — she has a huge impact on the other employees. She is the most incredibly loving individual and really happy. Seeing how that job has impacted her daily living has really meant a lot to me.”