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