Goodwill has a long history of helping those with disabilities increase their independence and reach their potential, especially through employment. About 10 percent of people in the U.S. have what’s called invisible disabilities. That means a physical, mental or neurological condition that limits a person’s movements, senses or activities and is invisible to the average onlooker.
Colleen Smith, 28, is someone who has struggled with this type of disability throughout youth and into adulthood. She has numerous intellectual, communication and information processing issues that affect her day-to-day functioning in the world. Her issues include dyscalculia (inability to calculate numbers), attention deficit disorder, and central auditory processing disorder, a condition where there is interference with the way the brain interprets sounds, especially speech.
In social situations she’s prone to oversharing and sometimes talks too much. Maturity, and according to her “lots of tough love” from her parents, teachers and others who have supported her, have helped her to develop practical skills to compensate for her disabilities.
Colleen’s family moved to Indianapolis from Texas in 2008 when her father, an engineer with Rolls Royce, was transferred. She graduated from Cardinal Ritter High School in 2010 and went on to earn an associate’s degree in office administration from Vincennes University in 2014. Vincennes provided her with intensive academic support through its Student Transition into Educational Programs, commonly called S.T.E.P., that teaches learning disabled students the skills they need to navigate school and learn independently in college.
Despite having a business degree, Colleen spent the next two years looking for work with no success. Interviews were challenging and stressful for her. She had difficulty focusing and framing short responses to questions. Employment services were hesitant to disclose her disability in advance of an interview. She was feeling very discouraged.
Her best friend worked at Goodwill and told her about an upcoming job fair. On a whim she attended and was immediately hired at Click Goodwill. Her job was to find items that customers had purchased online and needed to pick up from Click Goodwill’s warehouse. She was well liked and excelled in the position.
“I really enjoyed working there. I learned a lot about how a business works, but I knew that working there wasn’t permanent. I wasn’t using my degree,” Colleen said.
She connected with Nicole Wiese, Goodwill’s disability services manager, after working at Click Goodwill for about a year. “Colleen was underemployed. We looked at her ‘skill gaps’ and that definitely included interviewing. We worked on strengthening her resume. And we supported her as she transitioned to a more professional, structured work environment,” Nicole said.
While Colleen’s job search and interview skills were being honed, June Hennegan, Goodwill’s disability services employment advisor, met with a prospective employment partner, CD-COM Systems Midwest. June quickly realized that CD-COM might be a good fit for Colleen. She arranged for her to job shadow, something disability services often does to help clients be successful. Colleen’s been working at CD-COM full-time since October 2018 and couldn’t be happier.
CD-COM has offices in Indianapolis and Louisville and provides digital imaging and archiving services — and traditional box storage of records — to schools, hospitals and businesses. Colleen’s position involves preparing files for imaging, disposal of files, and she’s in training to back-up documents through microfilm.
“I feel like I’m at home there. I love getting up and going to work!” she said. “I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be where I am without Goodwill.”
Her advice to others who have learning disabilities: Don’t give up! Colleen has worked hard to become increasingly self-sufficient. She’s very self-aware of her strengths and her weaknesses. She credits much of her success to the support of friends and having parents who challenged her to become the best version of her unique self.
“My parents have always supported me. If a path wasn’t working we’d say ‘Let’s try something else,’” she said.
Colleen is now at the trailhead of a new path — independent living. Her parents plan to retire in the next couple of years and return to their native Texas. Colleen wants to stay in Indianapolis and sees herself working at CD-COM for a “very, very long time.”
“It’s a thrill to see how far Colleen has come and that she is thriving,” added Nicole. “I believe in the transformative power of employment.”