Opportunity Knocks at Whitson for Young Woman with Disability

Sierra (middle) will be helping Chelsea Vermeire (right) in the Whitson Elementary School library as part of a path to employment program through Opportunity Connections, an organization dedicated to helping adults with developmental disabilities live their best life. At left is Raven Rutherford, Sierra’s job coach.

Chelsea Vermeire has worked at the Hulan L. Whitson Elementary School Library for eight years. This year is a little different though because she has a new assistant in the library named Sierra.

Sierra is one of the estimated 1.2 million adults in the United States that have a developmental disability, making it difficult for them to enter the workforce.

Sierra is volunteering/participating in an internship at the library, under the direction of Vermeire, thanks in part to a group out of Hood River called Opportunity Connections.

Opportunity Connections has been in the Gorge for over 50 years and was created by several families that came together to address a void in the services provided at the time to the developmentally disabled community.

Specifically, Opportunity Connections works throughout the Columbia River Gorge offering group and supported living, attendant care, and employment services to adults with developmental disabilities.

“Over the last five years, the social services landscape has changed and the organization has stepped out into the community with more of an assertive posture,” said Wes Williams, Business Relations Manager for Opportunity Connections.

Vermeire was in search of an assistant in the Whitson library and was connected to Sierra through Opportunity Connections, said Williams.

“I was looking for an assistant in the school library and thought it would be great for someone like Sierra, who wants to be a librarian, to come and help me out,” said Vermeire.

Sierra is working on a program called Employment Path. The program offers Sierra and her employer the opportunity to find the best job for her that not only benefits her but the school itself.

“I think this will be a great opportunity to show the kids the diversity of the workforce here, but also that every person has value,” said Vermeire.

The hope is that as Sierra works and builds skills in the library, she will be able to be fully employed there as a librarian’s assistant.

“Sierra will be improving on her reading and writing skills, as well as learning how to take direction from Chelsea and be on time,” said Wes Williams a representative for Opportunity Connections, who connected Sierra to Vermeire.

At the time of meeting with The Enterprise, Sierra had only been working in the library for two days and the most interaction she had had with students was during recess.

“In addition to helping me in the Library, Sierra will be a recess monitor with me and will help with after-school programs as well,” said Vermeire.

So far being a recess monitor has been Sierra’s favorite part of the job.

“I love this job a lot! My favorite part has been playing with the kids at recess,” said Sierra.

Sierra is also very creative and helped Vermeire set up the bookcase display at the front of the school that features iconic holiday characters, such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the Grinch and Olaf the snowman from Disney’s “Frozen” in the form of stacked books.

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