CHIPLEY — For most of us, our job is more than just work — it’s a large part of how we define ourselves, who we are.
For Sunny Hills resident Virginia Lee Sword, having a job also means having a reason to get out among people and live her life once again.
“It was about much more than just getting a job, it was about getting my self back,” Sword said during an interview on Thursday at the Goodwill Industries -Big Bend Inc. Career Training Center in Chipley.
Sword had suffered a horse-riding injury that left her in a coma for two months in 1998, and a few years later she was involved in a nearly fatal car wreck that left her needing reconstructive facial surgery.
Her prolonged time spent on a respirator in the hospital left her with a whisper of a voice and chronic respiratory problems — and the traumatic ordeals left her unable to work for years.
“Lee was referred to the Job Club by her vocational rehabilitation,” Employment Specialist CeCe Richards said. “When she got her, she had a bit of an attitude, but after a while, she was leading the club meetings.”
“When I first came I just sat over in that corner,” Sword admits, “I wasn’t going to do anything. I just wanted to stay home on my couch with my dog.”
The Job Club is a weekly group that teaches job seekers soft skills, such as self-presentation, dependability, motivation, team building and anger management, among other skills, Richards said.
“Clients who are in our placement program are required to come to Job Club each week so they can learn skills such as how to interview, or how to handle criticism from an employer,” Richards said.
Goodwill Industries began in 1902 as a program to collect discarded items then put disadvantaged people to work repairing the items so they could support themselves and their families, said Heather Gioia, director of public relations for Goodwill Industries – Big Bend.
“For years the emphasis was on working with the disabled, and that is still a large part of what we do,” Gioia said, “but we also help anyone who needs help with finding a job.”
Goodwill Industries also helps people overcome obstacles such as poverty, homelessness, or educational challenges.
“We offer a systemic approach to the client’s needs,” Richards said. “If they come in with only an eighth grade education, we have programs to get them ready to take the GED, then we have programs for testing for GED. After that, we have classes in various computer skills, and even certification.”
Richards said Goodwill Industries – Big Bend works with employers in the area, including temp services such as Manpower in Dothan, to connect employees with jobs.
“We have employers who come to us first, because they know what kind of training we are giving our employees,” Richards said.
Goodwill Industries – Big Bend also has contract services for janitorial and landscaping jobs that are manned by clients, 80 percent of whom are disabled. The contract program works through RESPECT, a Florida-based, Legislatively created program that allows governmental entities to purchase commodities and services they need while providing employment opportunities to Floridians with disabilities.
For Virginia Lee Sword, what Goodwill Industries – Big Bend was able to do was more than just find her a job.
“I came out of my shell,” Sword said. “At first, I was just showing up, but after a while, Miss CeCe really got to me.”
A little over a year ago, Sword was hired by Sam’s Club in Panama City Beach, where she currently works as a greeter. Richards says Sword is constantly being praised by her employers for her bubbly personality and work ethic.
“At first it was tough, I didn’t think I could stand and work for eight hours,” Sword said, “but over time I built up to it and now I can work no problem.” Sword is still undergoing rehabilitation for her respiratory and vocal ailments, but she no longer sits at home all day watching TV.
“My mother encouraged me to continue to come to Job Club, and if it wasn’t for Job Club and Miss CeCe, I don’t think I would be where I am today,” Sword said.
“Sam’s Club has also been great, they’ve really helped me and have been very supportive of me,” Sword said. “And besides, they pay me to talk to people. I love my job.”