It’s been a whirlwind two months for plenty of people thanks to COVID-19, but few could probably match that time span for new People First Industries Executive Director Shannon Walker.
Walker moved into her new position March 16 and had no time to settle into her new chair before the coronavirus pandemic began to hit its stride.
Fortunately, Walker is not new to the company, having worn plenty of different hats over the past decade.
“It’s been a very difficult transition due to the circumstances,” she stated. “Nobody dreams about taking over a business like this during a pandemic, when you’ve got so many people whose lives are basically in your hands. And it was very tough to have to send them all home and tell them they couldn’t come back to work for a while.”
People First Industries was formerly known as the Sheltered Workshop. It provides vocational services for adults with intellectual disabilities.
Walker has been associated with the group since September 2010, when she was hired as office manager.
She did that job for five years before taking on the additional responsibility of assistant director under Dr. Chip Weiner, where she served until Weiner’s retirement earlier this year.
“Dr. Weiner has been my mentor the last five years and was on our board for five years before that, so we worked very closely together,” Walker said. “He taught me a lot in the last five years of how to work with people and how to deal with people. I wouldn’t have ever dreamed of sitting in this position without him being there and teaching me like he did.”
For those unfamiliar with People First, she explained it’s a program through the Department of Human Services where intellectually disabled people are trained for different jobs so that they hopefully someday will have the ability to get out in the real world if they choose and achieve gainful employment for themselves.
The agency teaches life skills and how to work in different job settings. Many work in the warehouses where they pull different types of orders. They also learn to take the orders and get them ready for delivery.
One job contract the agency has had for many years is imprinting the words “State of Oklahoma” on pencils that different state entities utilize.
People First also takes on jobs outside the state sector. One of the employees’ favorites is with Dollar Tree, inflating balls for them. According to the executive director, up to 14,000 balls are inflated per week.
They also have custodial contracts with Department of Human Services, Southeastern Electric, Fairground buildings and Western Meadows Baptist Church, to name a few. There is also an ongoing shredding job with Big 5.
“Whatever we are called on to do, we try to teach our clients those new jobs to increase what they are able to do,” added Walker. “We are always looking for new jobs. We can do packaging jobs or sorting jobs for people. They enjoy new jobs. The majority of our clients work five-hour days and keep busy. They usually come in at eight in the morning, have a 30-minute lunch and are out the door by 2 o’clock. Most of them not only enjoy their jobs but also the socialization, because often this is the only socialization they get. It’s like a family out here.
“We have some that can even run forklifts and pallet jacks in the workhouse. There is nothing that these people can’t do that a normal person can’t. They are very sharp and intelligent people. They just sometimes have to work at it harder than other people. Some of them can do things that I cannot. They unload trucks when those come in and often look like a bunch of ants working back there. But they know their jobs. And they just love it. There are several in which this is the only family they have. We try to help them with anything they need.”
Currently the program has 27 working clients and 31 staff members. Those clients range in age from 18 to 64.
At their awards assembly in December, they honored one individual for being there for 40 years. Another hit the 35-year mark in March. They have been employed almost since day one, which was in 1979.
Most of the employed clients have been devastated by having to sit at home during the current health crisis and are eager to get back to work. The People First staff has contacted those clients each week during the off-time period and point toward a June 1 date when they may go back to work.,
“Some of them call out here on a daily basis to check in,” Walker laughed. “We take time out of our day to talk to them, though. Most were ready to come back after they had been gone a week. They are chomping at the bit to come back to work. We are providing a daily lunch for some that need it.
“Our staff has been unbelievable during all this. We tried to institute as many safety measures as possible. We have sanitized this place from the front door to the back door. The next two weeks we are focusing on training - not that they aren’t already trained, but I just feel like there is always something more to learn,” she said.
“Luckily, none of our staff had to be laid off during all this and they are filling in the jobs of our clients. That has given them a new appreciation of how hard those clients work in those jobs when they are here.”