Byrd honored for work to support job opportunities for individuals

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Overcoming Challenges

By Stephen Thomas

 SHEPHERDSVILLE - Thanks to the efforts of a special workforce coalition led by Willie Byrd, employee options for the disabled are truly unlimited.


Byrd, executive director of Options Unlimited, Inc., leads the way in collaborative supported employment opportunities for local residents with various developmental disabilities.

The coalition’s success earned Byrd the 2012 Sunrise Award presented by Seven Counties Services, Inc.

The Seven Counties Board of Directors annually selects an individual or organization whose efforts further their own commitment to build healthy communities by assisting individuals and families in realizing a person’s full potential.

Dean Johnson, Seven Counties Vice-President of community relations, said Byrd was selected for many reasons, primarily for efforts in finding supported employment opportunities for disabled clients.

“What Willie does for people with disabilities is in the avenue of the toughest work there is, trying to find them job,” Johnson said. “He has really been the leader in our region, helping individuals get employment, because of his efforts.”

Options Unlimited helps clients with disabilities become as independent as possible.

Byrd began as executive director in 1996, always on the lookout for a position one of his clients could fill.

Byrd works with various companies to determine which potential jobs could be arranged. Clients are referred to Options through the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.

“We refer the clients and meet with them as they get to know the employer,” said Byrd. “Then we figure out what jobs could be best. Their personal ability is matched to the jobs.”

The coalition began as early as 2010 when Byrd first contacted Best Buy’s new Bullitt County distribution center.

“All the clients at Best Buy are full-time, some make over $13 an hour, full insurance... they are official Best Buy employees,” Byrd said.

Bonnie Thorson Young, divisional director with Seven Counties, nominated Byrd for the Sunrise Award. She said Byrd’s efforts with Best Buy were the beginnings of the new coalition.

“Support for these employees has received more priority in the last 25 years, some employers more than others,” said Young. “Willie knew Best Buy was a good opportunity, then he got others involved.”

The key to the coalition’s success, Young said, was providing “real jobs” where clients could work alongside non-disabled peers, rather than being isolated.

United Parcel Service met with Byrd in February 2012 in hopes of preparing a similar path for Options clients that Best Buy offered. UPS workforce planning manager Philip Donahue said Byrd was adopted as leader of the new coalition.

“Willie is the key person to contact with all of the outside agencies,” Donahue said. “Other organizations work with Options, and then Options contacts us.”

Donahue praised Options clients as professional and passionate employees that blend in with their co-workers.

“They are very motivated and results-driven,” he added. “It’s a real-life example of living up to the UPS policies of a diverse workforce. UPS wants to reflect the community we serve.”

Businesses work together with Options clients and work coaches, representatives who attend training with clients and help them transition into their new working environment.

“Basically we support their relationship between client and employee,” Byrd said. “We make sure the company is happy with the employee and go through the orientation with them. We work right alongside them the first few days.”

“We place the clients in a simulated work environment,” Donahue said. “It’s a transition work group. They get acclimated, and they show they can perform essential duties. It ensures further success.”

According to Byrd, the process leads to a new support system for the clients.

“After a while you don’t see them as a disabled person,” he said. “They’re just a regular part of the workforce. They have a lot more confidence and some economic freedom.”

Byrd said placing clients includes a secondary benefit for the entire family.

“People sitting at home, this gets them out and socializing,” Byrd said. “They make new friends at work. They have something productive to do. More production leads to less depression. It helps the whole family, other members have less babysitting time and more free time.”

Over 70 Options clients have been hired by Best Buy, with another 20 at UPS and more being trained.

“They receive real jobs and they are doing real work,” Young said. “This alone changed the lives of 90 people and their families. It’s good for business, it’s great for their quality of life.”

Young praised Byrd for his efforts in establishing the coalition and helping it continue to grow and succeed.

“He saw an opportunity that was fabulous and he seized the moment,” she said. “It was persistence, leadership and advocacy that won this award. He stood above the crowd, in particular his life-long dedication to people with disabilities.”

Byrd said the coalition’s goal in 2013 and 2014 was increasing by finding more area businesses to join and offer jobs for Options clients.

“We’ll work with any employer, but for the coalition to be effective, (businesses) need to be willing to fit about 15 jobs,” he said. “We need access to more companies for clients with special disabilities. One job or 100, we’ll take them all.

For more information about the coalition contact Byrd, 955-7271. For information on Options Unlimited visit www.optionsunlimitedinc.org.