PolicyWorks Builds Careers

Shawn Fiala
Shawn Fiala, M.S., CRC

I found in PolicyWorks (PW) an organization that achieves its aims through reliance on collaboration, partnership and teamwork, as well as a desire to continue the vision and work of Susan Daniels in everything that they do. This team approach started at the top – from President Barbara Butz, national services coordinator Steven Allen and Eric Glunt of SDSU’s Interwork Institute – and flowed seamlessly down to the PW ambassadors on our respective college campuses throughout California. Our team contact through conference calls, our online presence, social media efforts, email and in-state meetings made all the difference in the cohesive and successful partnerships that we created over the years and across projects.

While my work for PW was personally rewarding, it is not an understatement that it would become a vital part of building and shaping my own career in vocational rehabilitation (VR). This was most clearly realized in one of PW’s strategic partners in California, SDSU’s Interwork Institute. It was here that my work for PW would lead me to collaborate with professionals in the VR counseling field (in trainings, meetings, and other work), many of whom were graduates of one of the nation’s leading programs in VR, SDSU’s Rehabilitation Counseling Program (RCP). In 2013, this led me to enter graduate study myself in the RCP. My work with PW would go on to become an integral aspect of my graduate experience. This was particularly true of work related to the “Bridging the Gap from College to Careers” program funded by the Kessler Foundation and in implementing the “Professional Development and Disability” (PDD) curriculum of Paul Hippolitus at SDSU in 2014.

For four semesters, the PDD course at SDSU was open for enrollment. My role was as a peer mentor to students as well as collaborating with the PW team (I was also a graduate assistant to the instructor for two semesters). This team consisted of placement specialists who assisted PDD students with locating internships, volunteer sites and paid employment opportunities. We had a very diverse group of students in the course, ranging from freshman undergraduates, to graduate students, to community college students. This diversity was also highlighted in having not only students with disabilities enrolled, but also graduate students entering the VR field who would ultimately be serving this population. PDD students learned about essential employment topics, including disclosure, accommodations and soft skills. Students gained a new perspective on the workplace, disability, removing barriers to employment and maximizing their potential for success in conducting their job search. The overall positive results of the PDD course and “Bridging the Gap from College to Careers” at SDSU, California State University, Fullerton and the University of California, Berkeley have been reported at professional conferences such as the California Association for Postsecondary Education and Disability (CAPED) and the National Conference on Rehabilitation Education (NCRE).

While working on PW initiatives in graduate school, I also worked with transition age youth in the San Diego Community College District (SDCCD) and for a comprehensive transition program within Disability Support Programs and Services (DSPS). In 2016, I became a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC) and graduated with my master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling. I received an additional advanced certificate for work done in the area of cognitive disabilities. After graduation, I would stay in DSPS in the SDCCD where I was hired to work as a vocational counselor in an adjunct faculty position for the WorkAbility III program.

As I look back on my journey and the hurdles and challenges that I faced in establishing my career, I can only express gratitude to the organization that gave me my start: PolicyWorks! I stand among so many who can attest that PW changes lives through its projects and programs. In the process of changing lives, PW truly builds a foundation for and creates careers…it most certainly helped to create mine.

Shawn Fiala, M.S., CRC


Shawn Fiala is a Vocational Specialist and Adjunct Faculty member with the WorkAbility III program in the San Diego Community College District. He became the newest member of the PolicyWorks Board of Directors in February 2017.

Motivational Mentoring

Denzel Thomas Picture
Denzel Thomas

Denzel Thomas is a man who makes things happen. Just three years ago, he was working in banking. He was in the barber shop for his regular hair cut when he began chatting with a man next to him. This man just happened to be a mentor. Denzel shared a bit about himself, the draw he feels toward helping others, and talked about a family member with autism. The man saw the spark in Denzel that carries through his smile and voice and invited him to become part of his company as a project coordinator. Three years later, Denzel is President of the Brilloco Institute and lead on one of the first disability peer mentoring programs in the state of Florida.

The Brilloco Institute is an Orlando-based nonprofit that devotes itself to matching unemployed individuals with disabilities to employment partners in the private sector. They also help high school students with disabilities in all grades to navigate the ever-challenging transitions to both college and their first employment. These new workers learn via on-the-job training and are supported to create portfolios that dazzle rather than two-dimensional resumes. Part of what sets these students and employees apart is the strong support system Thomas and his colleagues have created. They help their clients travel the often-confusing landscape with confidence by offering them the backing of training, counseling and a team that believes in their work and thoroughly invested in their success.

Mentoring is a critical part of their success. Their team has mentored 60 youth to date. Given the variety of individual experiences, their approach is far from cookie cutter; mentors instead tailor each person’s experience to their goals. Mentoring relationships are built on trust and a genuine desire to see the mentee thrive, a part of the work Thomas loves. He views the possibilities for mentees as virtually limitless, saying, “if you put in the time and work, you will get where you want to go.”

Brilloco mentors helping them to learn about a variety of fields and industries, from agriculture to technology, banking to media animation. They assist their mentees in identifying goals and in outlining the concrete steps to achieve them. Mentors help their mentees build on successes and learn from obstacles, instill confidence in them as they go. But lessons transcend the page and the individual. The movement is about inclusion, Thomas says, about employing individuals with disabilities in stable, rich positions and careers. “It is possible,” Thomas says, “there are individuals out there who have your back.”

While humble about his and other mentors’ impact, he describes the work as extremely rewarding. Former mentees often reach out to keep him posted on their successes as they continue their journey. In his mid-20s when he began this career, Thomas acknowledges that he has grown immensely from the work himself. “You get a chance to watch somebody grow,” he says of the beauty of the mentoring experience, adding “you never know the impact you can have on somebody’s life.”

Thomas speaks at high schools monthly. He says that 99 percent of the students in the audience do not have mentors. If he had his wishes, the entire working world would adopt the mentoring approach. Given his passion for the communities he serves and his belief that we all can do anything, Denzel Thomas might just make it happen.

Contributed by: Kristen Willard, PolicyWorks Board Member

Implementing Alaska PeerMentoringWorks

Nicona MacDonald, PolicyWorks Project Development Specialists
Nicona MacDonald, Project Development Specialist

Implementing Alaska PeerMentoringWorks: A Workforce Innovation Pilot Project for WINTAC

PolicyWorks staff have been busy collaborating with leaders from the Alaska Division of Rehabilitation, Alaska Department of Labor and the National Disability Institute to develop and implement a comprehensive peer mentoring program for the state of Alaska. Beginning in 20127, the program will be delivered via the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) in Juneau as well as at regional Alaska Division of Rehabilitation locations.

The PolicyWorks Peer Mentoring Program is one of three Workforce Innovation Pilot Projects (WIPPs) for the Workforce Innovation Technical Assistance Center (WINTAC). WINTAC’s goal is to assist state vocational rehabilitation (VR) programs and related professionals in meeting the federal workforce guidelines set in place by the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act (WIOA).

Alaska VR has demonstrated their sincere enthusiasm for adopting a statewide Peer Mentoring Program by committing top staff to this project. Jim Kreatschman, Statewide Youth Transition Coordinator for Alaska Department of Labor, Division of VR, and Windy Swearingin, Disability Employment Initiative (DEI) Statewide Leads for Alaska’s Department of Labor, Division of Employment and Training Services, have contributed their expertise on issues specific to Alaska’s unique geographic layout. Nikki Powis, Technical Assistance & Training Manager from the National Disability Institute and a prior resident of the state of Alaska, provided insight to the development of our the Peer Mentoring Pilot program. Working together has been an invaluable experience for all involved and has played a key role in creating a program model that will effectively meet the needs of Alaska’s youth located in both larger cities and rural areas.

PolicyWorks staff have been collaborating creatively with these and other local experts to establish the best possible program. Ciara Calsita and Nicona MacDonald, PolicyWorks Project Development Specialists , worked with Cindy Murphy-Fox, Assistant Chief for Alaska Department of Labor, Division of VR to establish a comprehensive resource database that works in tandem with the Alaska-specific online PeerMentoringWorks training course; this inspired coupling ensures the team provides peer mentors and peer mentor coordinators the knowledge and background necessary to deliver mentoring services in the state of Alaska. The course includes 13 modules designed to provide a solid understanding of peer mentoring basics; resources and mentoring techniques; an overview of program guidelines and expectations; as well as an understanding of mentor, mentee and mentor coordinator roles and responsibilities. The course includes pathways tailored towards both mentors and mentor coordinators, and upon successful completion participants receive a certificate.

The pilot PolicyWorks Peer Mentoring Program targets consumers receiving services at VR agencies is to assist young individuals with disabilities to transition from secondary education to postsecondary education and employment. Peer mentoring will be used to empower young people with disabilities through influence; teaching skills including communication, self-determination, and self-advocacy. The expected outcome of this project is a measurable increase in engagement and service to Alaska’s youth, with emphasis on those who are traditionally underserved.

For additional information on Alaska’s PeerMentoringWorks course please contact Ciara at ccalsita@gmail.com or Nicona at niconak@gmail.com. For those interested in bringing the PeerMentoringWorks program to your state, please contact Barbara at barbara.butz@disabilitypolicyworks.org.