NORTH BEND — John Harsh has the perfect job.
He's a parking enforcement officer for the city of North Bend. Every day, he marks tires along the downtown streets, writes tickets, follows up with paperwork and does other office work at City Hall.
To you, that job might look like a dead end. But for him, it's been an on-ramp to freedom.
"It's given me a lot of pride in myself," he said. "Every time my parents tell me they're proud of me that I work, it almost brings a tear to my eye. I never thought I'd be doing it. I have a good job, and I work hard in it."
In his teens, Harsh was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. Medication muffled the mysterious commanding voices he heard, but until he was 30, Harsh hadn't been able to hold a job. "I had tried a couple of times to get a job, like at 7-Eleven," he said. But mostly he sat around the house.
Through Coos County Health and Wellness, he'd heard about a program called Working Wonders that helped people with mental illness find employment. But he didn't get serious about it until four years ago, when he turned 30.
"My dad said, 'You're not doing anything, you're being a bum, you're living off the government. Would you please do something?'" Harsh recalls.
So Harsh enlisted the aid of the employment specialists at Working Wonders.
From its tiny office in North Bend, Working Wonders contracts with Coos County Health and Wellness to help people with mental illness find jobs and stick with them.
Program administrator Cathy Pennington said the program started in 2004, basing its methods on Dartmouth College research showing that employment — paid employment in the mainstream workplace — is a powerful force in improving the well-being of people with mental illness.
Clients participate in a personalized job search program developed on the basis of each person's preferences. Both the client and the employment specialist put many hours of work each week into the job search so that the client can see that progress is being made. Jobs and applicants are painstakingly matched so that the relationship is likely to succeed. Finally, the employment specialist gives the client any support he or she needs to succeed.
That support may include clearing up communication between the worker and a supervisor; connecting the worker with resources such as transportation or work clothing through the state's office of vocational rehabilitation; and helping the worker solve any problems that may arise.
Employers, are you reading this? Don't you wish your employees would show up reliably, iron out any misunderstandings immediately and do their job enthusiastically?
That's exactly the sales pitch Working Wonders employment specialists use as they pound the pavement seeking employers to hire their clients.
If an employer is apprehensive about taking a chance on a Working Wonders client, the employment specialists counter that because of the support the clients get, hiring them is less risky than hiring someone off the street.
There's no subsidy to the employer, although employers can take the federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit when they hire people with barriers to employment.
"It's like any other employee we hire — you're taking a chance on that employee," said Joe Monahan, general manager at Best Western Plus Holiday Hotel in Coos Bay. "You need to look at the client's abilities the same as any job applicant and see if it is a fit.
"The good thing about Working Wonders is they have the support network of the staff there that can also help work with the business and the client, so that's really a benefit."
Monahan recently hired housekeeper Heather Hernandez through the program. Addiction, anxiety and depression had kept her out of the workforce for years.
In her first days on the job, Hernandez kept in close touch with her employment specialist. "They helped me get shoes, they helped me get long-sleeved shirts because I had to cover my tattoos, a lot of emotional support that was great, they got my hair cut and dyed," she said. "It was very personal, very one-on-one."
She's happy to be back in the workforce. "It's helped me mentally, emotionally and financially," she said. "I'm able to support my daughter, I'm back on my feet and back in society."
Tim, who would rather not use his last name, has worked for several years as a janitor and landscaper at two businesses. "We've built a solid relationship," he said.
For Tim, who has schizoaffective disorder, landscaping duties presented two challenges: He lacked experience breaking down tasks into manageable parts, and he was afraid of working on a ladder. His employment specialist helped him develop strategies for dealing with both those situations.
Many Working Wonders clients already have job skills and just need help reintegrating work into their lives. Brandy Ober has a long work history, but a premature baby, a battle with cancer, addiction, and anxiety and depression left her intimidated by the job hunt. Working Wonders connected her with a new hearing aid and placed her in a job at TnT Market in Eastside, where the customers are congenial and she can confidently use her skills. "It's a small store; you get to know all the customers," she said.
The job has enabled Ober to pay her child support and has improved her outlook. "I'm always telling people about Working Wonders," Ober said. "Anybody I know that's involved with mental health and doesn't have a job, I tell them to go."
Pennington said employers are often glad to learn that because of physical or emotional issues, some Working Wonders clients prefer a part-time job. In some cases, an employer has needed part-time help but has never even advertised the opening because he or she assumed no one would want "a sliver of a job," as Pennington put it.
Working Wonders participants have been especially helpful to Kristin Jones, manager at Liberty Tax in North Bend, who annually hires "wavers" — the people who dress up as the Statue of Liberty and wave at passersby during tax season.
"Our job isn't necessarily the most glorifying one, but it's extremely important for us, and you need to make sure that they actually want to do it, because you can tell if they don't," Jones said.
In addition to other applicants, Jones hired about a dozen Working Wonders participants this year. In addition to having good waving skills and upbeat attitudes, Working Wonders clients stood out because of their reliable attendance, Jones said, thanks to the support they got from the program.
Other clients are looking for full-time employment and a springboard to better things. Before Derek, who would rather not use his last name, got a job with the contractor resetting the Walmart store in Coos Bay, he'd been homeless, anxious and drifting through his days without purpose. "Having a job has given me a really strange sense of purpose and self-worth," he said. The 25-year-old is looking forward to other opportunities when the reset is over.
To celebrate achievements and reach out to potential participants and employers, Working Wonders will throw a party at noon Friday, June 26, at the Egyptian Theatre in downtown Coos Bay.
Interested employers and prospective clients are invited to hear from successful participants and employers and to learn about what Working Wonders can do for them. The doors open at 11:30 a.m., there'll be popcorn and soda, and those who stay after the noon presentation can watch a movie.
To learn more about Working Wonders, call 541-756-2057 or stop by its office at 1840 Union Ave. in North Bend.