“For one to fly, one needs only to take the reins.” — Melissa James
Keri loves horses: sketching them, learning about them and sharing her knowledge with others.
“Did you know horses stand on one toe?” she asks, grinning. “Their toe is their whole foot!”
Keri also enjoys discovering the items people give to the Goodwill Donation Express Center where she works in Paris, Tenn. Asked to name a few interesting things she has seen lately, she rattles off a list: a metal pole for hanging intravenous fluids, a home water filtration system, a truckload of packaged diapers.
But Keri loves the interesting things donors say even more.
“Sometimes, they’ll tell me that a family member has died or they are cleaning out their house,” she says. “I like meeting new people and hearing their stories. I’ve always wanted to be a good ear for people.”
Keri’s supervisor, Terry Dwyer, says there is no question Goodwill donors enjoy bending Keri’s ear. One woman recently told him she donates primarily for that reason.
“People around here know her by name,” he says. “She is such a lovely personality. I get good comments about all of my staff, but Keri stands out.”
One of the things that gives the 22-year-old donation attendant her uniqueness also gives her special needs. Keri has autism, and communication was not always her strong suit.
Keri’s aunt and adoptive parent, Laura Dougherty, says her biggest worry before Keri took the job — found through a Goodwill Career Solutions job fair — was how strangers would respond to her.
“Keri is different, and we love her because she is different — but not everybody loves that,” she explains. “She’s very friendly and will talk to anybody and everybody, but (if you are Keri) when do you stop talking, and when do you stay out of someone’s personal space?”
When Keri began working at the Donation Express Center in June of 2016, it was her first real job. She initially struggled with some tasks, such as remembering where to put different donated
items after sorting them. Dwyer developed a checklist for her.
She also lacked confidence, particularly about interacting with donors. Her supervisor helped Keri develop a “mental script” for those interactions — greeting the donor, collecting their items, handing them a donation receipt and thanking them.
It is not unusual for Keri to meet dozens of new people in a single day on the job. In doing so, slowly but surely, her confidence grew. She became more adept at grasping verbal cues and body language — recognizing, for instance, when someone was in a hurry, or when they were teasing her rather than criticizing. Keri worked hard at these skills, and the difference in her now is “huge,” her aunt says.
The job brought other benefits as well. Keri has a reason to get up and go every day instead of just hanging around the house. She’s learned about responsibility, teamwork and the value of a paycheck.
“She can pay for her cell phone now. She can buy clothes if she wants to. She was supplied those things before, but Goodwill has given her a sense of purpose,” Laura Dougherty says.
Keri’s newfound maturity has given her aunt and uncle hope that she can become fully independent soon, maybe even move into her own apartment.
“I think she’s much more ready to go out in the world. That’s why we’re looking at steps of getting her out on her own now,” Laura Dougherty explains. “Goodwill has helped do that for her.”
Keri says her goal is to eventually attend college. She would like to study animal science — including horses, of course — but especially how animal science benefits people.
That passion for helping people is the other reason Keri loves her job. She enjoys being part of Goodwill’s mission of changing lives through education, training and employment. And she hopes she may even inspire others with disabilities to reach for their goals.
“I’m proud of what I do,” she says. “I feel like I’m doing something for somebody else, and that’s a really good feeling to have.”
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. One in 68 children is on the autism spectrum, and autism affects more than 70 million people worldwide.
Though there are no reliable statistics for unemployment among people with autism because government statistics focus on disabilities in general, the vast majority of people with autism are believed to be either jobless or underemployed. Unemployment among all people with disabilities was 10.5 percent in 2016, a rate more than double the national average. Meanwhile, the cost for caring for Americans with autism is estimated at $268 billion, rising to $461 billion by 2025.
There is hope that attitudes are changing in the workplace, however.
According to Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization in the U.S. that sponsors research and conducts awareness efforts, more employers are becoming open to hiring people on the spectrum because of characteristics that often (but not always) come with autism: the ability to focus on a task for long periods of time, preference for repetition, loyalty and a preference for following the rules.
Goodwill Industries of Middle Tennessee is one of Tennessee’s largest employers of people with disabilities. Information about employment opportunities at Goodwill can be found at givegw.org/jobs or by calling 1-833-4-GWJOBS.
Anyone wanting information and local resources related to autism can contact the Autism Response Team at 1-888-Autism2 or FamilyServices@AutismSpeaks
Mercedes: Mercedes had never held a job before. When she came to Goodwill. READ HER STORY
Kevin: For most of his life, Kevin wore his unique ability to adapt like a… READ HIS STORY
— By Chris Fletcher
Prior to joining Goodwill as its PR & Communications Manager in 2014, Fletcher was a professional journalist for
more than 25 years working at media outlets in three states, including the Associated Press.