VR100 STORIES

June 2, 2020, marks the 100th anniversary of Vocational Rehabilitation. Signed into law on June 2, 1920, by President Woodrow Wilson, the Smith-Fess Act of 1920 (also known as the Industrial Rehabilitation Act and referred to as The National Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act), was the first federally funded program to assist people with disabilities who had not acquired their disabilities through military service.

To celebrate we are sharing personal stories about how VR services have made a difference in the lives of Californians with disabilities.


Man wearing medical facemask typing on a computer with a stack of blue forms on the desk beside him

William Hackman

Data Entry Clerk, Nestle

Tell us about you?

I was introduced to the services provided by DOR as I neared the end of high school education. I was first referred to the non-profit organization OPARC by DOR in early 2018.

How have VR Services impacted you?

For about a year, I attended every job prep class and meeting with my Job Developer. I received job placement services through OPARC where a Paid Internship Program (PIP) was developed at Nestle. Three months later I was hired directly by Nestle and remain competitively employed there to this day. My primary job duty is centered on data entry and running reports. … When I first started Nestle, I needed verbal prompting to approach my supervisor and colleagues for clarification to complete assignments. Today, I independently identify and approach supervisors without prompting and I am working on new tasks independently. I feel good about my job!

What does 100 years of VR mean to you?

Vocational Rehabilitation has supported me in training and today I am an asset in the workplace and overall, more confident in life.


Woman smiling wearing brown tortoise rimmed glasses

Amy K.

Director of Programs, California Independent Living Center (ILC)

Tell us about you?

I am an employee of a California Independent Living Center (ILC) and a former client of the Department of Rehabilitation. I started out as an Independent Living (IL) Program Specialist, implementing a grant to conduct nursing home transition, and have worked my way up to my current administrative role.

How have VR Services impacted you?

VR services completely changed the trajectory of my life. I did not know how I was ever going to work as a person with a vision impairment. … I did not know what the possibilities were. Working with VR changed that for me, specifically in my experiences with my counselor and with a job developer from the San Diego Center for the Blind. If it were not for my work with these individuals, I would not be in the career I am in today

What does 100 years of VR mean to you?

100 years of Vocational Rehabilitation means a lot to me because without VR I would not be the person I am … I would not have a sense of disability pride and advocacy spirit that I was fortunate to develop through my work at the ILC … and knowing that so many other people have had the same life changing experiences over the past 100 years is truly amazing and uplifting.


Man wearing a black fitted t-shirt

Danny Burke

Author, Entrepreneur and MBA student

Tell us about you?

After my military service, I really struggled to manage my mental and behavioral health and experienced chronic homelessness. I was referred to the DOR by Veteran Affairs … DOR became a steppingstone to help me gather my footing, providing me with career coaching and creating a long-term plan … I wrote a book called Motivate Your Mindset … showing that moving past brokenness into triumph is possible. I started a business called Brand Vigilante … providing pro bono business and brand development services to community members and local businesses. I graduated with the DOR's assistance receiving an AA in sociology and psychology, propelling me forward to finishing my BA in Organizational Studies … Most recently, getting accepted into an MBA program with Claremont Graduate University.

How have VR Services impacted you?

Before Vocational Rehabilitation, I worked in IT, which I got into from my military service. I found that I was not as prepared as I needed to be, and due to mental and behavioral health issues could not meet the continued training and shifts of the IT field. Vocational Rehabilitation helped me find a passion and move into an education that has reshaped my employment experience. Employment to me is empowerment and self-determination in being an entrepreneur and business consultant.

What does 100 years of VR mean to you?

There is this quote, "everything we see is the shadow side of life" that has stuck with me over the years. It reminds me of Vocational Rehabilitation and the freedom that it represents. Possibilities and opportunities are always around the corner. Still, sometimes we get so stuck in our minds, thinking about what we cannot do, that we forget what we can. That is 100 years of Vocational Rehabilitation to me. It is 100 years of remembering and looking forward to new opportunities.


Man standing next to a dog statue making bunny ears with fingers on one hand and holding a walking stick in the other

Bryan Garaventa

Principal Accessibility Architect, Level Access

Tell us about you?

When I was in high school, after losing my sight shortly before, DOR helped provide me with the resources to learn braille and to live successfully as a blind person … while attending Notre Dame de Namur University, DOR was of great help in providing critical accessibility hardware to aid my education. ... Since that time, I have become Principal Accessibility Architect at Level Access … I founded WhatSock.com and have developed numerous accessibility related training materials and development resources for engineers and higher education academics. I have been specializing in Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) research and development for over ten years and have been working in accessible development for over twenty years.

How have VR Services impacted you?

My work in the field of accessibility allows me to have a positive impact on the lives of millions of people around the world. I would not have been able to accomplish this without access to the tools and resources necessary for making this happen at an early age.

What does 100 years of VR mean to you?

In 100 years, it should never be forgotten how much we have achieved together in such a short amount of time.


Man smiling wearing a purple polo sitting in an office chair

Pete Benavidez

President, Blindness Support Services, Inc.

Tell us about you?

I was introduced to services offered by The California Department of Rehabilitation in 1980. As the result of services provided to me … over the past 20 years, I have received Congressional Recognition for my work as a community leader and similar awards from other organizations such as The California Endowment, The Riverside Fair Housing Council, The California Council of the Blind, and The National Philanthropy Association.

How have VR Services impacted you?

I was able to overcome various mental and emotional feelings such as denial, low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, and a feeling of hopelessness.

As my career grew over a period of 37 years, I can truly say that; "As a person who lives with a visual impairment, I developed a working knowledge of blindness, blind persons and a philosophy of promoting independence."

What does 100 years of VR mean to you?

The first 100 years of VR Services has had numerous success stories and has set the table for the next 100 years. I am especially interested and will do what it takes to ensure that such services will lead to a more inclusive community of leaders from diverse backgrounds in our great Nation.


Woman with blonde hair and thin rimmed oval glasses

Marcella Hernandez

Media Specialist - Independent Living Center of Southern California (ILCSC)

Tell us about you?

I am an artist and published author. My interests are in art, writing and my pets. I contracted polio as a child and live with the aftereffects of it.

How have VR Services impacted you?

I worked in the mortgage industry for several years, until they laid off employees, which I was a part of. Right after this, I was employed by the Independent Living Center of Southern California (ILCSC), with the assistance of Vocational Rehabilitation services, going on 20 plus years now.

To me, being employed means that I am a contributing member of society and can make my own decisions in life. I enjoy being a part of helping persons with disabilities, through my employment, to attain and maintain independent living.

What does 100 years of VR mean to you?

It has been a long journey for persons with disabilities to gain inclusion, but it has been successful and worth the efforts put into it by so many people.


Man holding a walking stick standing in front of an office reception desk with the name Lighthouse printed on it

Samuel Olanrewaju

Custodian - LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Tell us about you?

I was diagnosed with glaucoma in 2014. …The disease became aggressive and I lost a large proportion of my sight in that year. The bad news was hard to digest when the doctor told me that I was now legally blind. Without my sight, I ran into people and things on the street such as iron chairs, fire hydrants, poles, and trash cans. … I used to cry every day thinking, "It’s all over." … I could not work or find a job and had no source of income.

How have VR Services impacted you?

Vocational rehabilitation … marked the unforgettable turning point of my life … I attended the Orientation Center for the Blind (OCB) where I regained my independence through training such as mobility training with a white cane, daily living skills, computer training, and more. … DOR helped me find a new golden compass to navigate life freely without any fear. Now, I have my confidence back and my independence to work and I have hope and direction as I’m living a promising and purposeful life. I am proud to be a staff member of the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, earning a salary while I pursue a college degree for a future I couldn’t imagine only two years ago.

What does 100 years of VR mean to you?

It’s a hundred years of giving hope back to the hopeless and comfort to the miserable. … Having a job makes me an independent person and allows me to have total control over my life.


woman smiling wearing black and red plaid shirt

Jennifer Dufresne

WorkAbility II (WAII) Coordinator

Tell us about you?

I work for Vista Adult School, an adult education program in North San Diego County that provides Career Technical Education. Vista Adult School has a longstanding contract with Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) for WorkAbility II (WAII). Under this contract, I provide career assessment and employment services.

How have VR Services impacted you?

I love being a service provider for VR. For the past 8 years, I have had the opportunity to provide one-to-one services for thousands of individuals throughout San Diego County. I truly believe that obtaining employment … has the greatest impact on happiness … especially employment in an area that is actually meaningful to the client. I am honored to be able to have a role in this process. Each and every client has had an impact on my life, and I would consider myself lucky to be able to continue in the field of rehabilitation for the rest of my career.

What does 100 years of VR mean to you?

I am so proud to be a part of the VR system where we can advocate every single day for the rights of individuals with disabilities. I look forward to seeing the continued advancements for Disability Rights Laws and VR services in the coming years.


man sitting on steps with the california state capitol building in the background

Shayn Anderson

District Administrator - DOR

Tell us about you?

My grandfather who was Native American and came from the Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma used to say to me as a kid, "you do not know how another person feels until you have a walked a mile in their shoes." Well, I have walked in many of our consumers’ shoes and I use that experience to help guide me every day. As a child growing up, my mother held tight to the core belief that I had the right to try to do anything anyone else could try, football, scouts, debate team, etc., but with that core belief came a caveat of accountability that I had to give everything my all and try to excel with or without a disability. I am a former DOR consumer and now the District Administrator for the San Joaquin Valley District of the Vocational Rehabilitation Employment Division.

How have VR Services impacted you?

I would not be where I am today had it not been for DOR. In 1989, DOR services were a vocational life raft during a turbulent time in my vocational journey … unemployed and feeling utterly discouraged after suffering from discrimination and harassment from my newly hired manager at the bank where I quit, I was casually referred to DOR. After that, the rest (as they say) is history. I … was eventually hired as a rehabilitation counselor … then promoting over the years into different positions within DOR, but it all started with an outstanding supportive rehabilitation counselor who "found a way to yes" and propelled me into the career I have today. ... Being a former consumer … gives me a unique perspective … of having been where other consumers are at.

What does 100 years of VR mean to you?

You may never realize the lasting impact and ripple effect vocational rehabilitation services may have on the lives of individuals with disabilities.


Woman smiling sitting in a car

Sierra Crislip

Author

Tell us about you?

I am a current DOR consumer and am in a secured job with a job coach. I am trying new things and trying to find the right career path! I am an author of 2 published books, and I hope to continue sharing my experiences and spreading the word. My first book I wrote, Weird Girl with a Tumor, is a biography about real life experiences I endured and living with epilepsy, seizures, getting bullied, keeping a job, etc. My most recent published book is Tessa Teaches Kindness. The main character in the story has epilepsy that the other students cannot see. I wrote it based on my true-life experiences and wanted to share and teach the experience through the eyes of a child. I was inspired to write them because of all my past trauma I’ve been through. I wanted to tell my story and help others not feel so alone. My disability is invisible, and no one can see it, so by sharing my experiences and life trauma with others in a book, it helps them understand me more!

How have VR Services impacted you?

VR has helped me grow and learn from mistakes. I feel more grown and confident with myself and know that I will find my career path. It has always been a challenge for me to keep steady employment in the past, but with the help and support with DOR, they have helped me so much and I don’t feel as much anxiety or worry about my job being in jeopardy. DOR has helped to put me in line with a secured job and job coach. Having a counselor to speak to and get advice from has also been life-changing for me, as it gave me options to explore many career paths for myself and really get to know myself in the process. I feel a little braver in who I am, and I do not have as many fears as I used to. With DOR, I feel extra safe and secure and even though I have a learning disability and still struggle with communication skills, I know that my counselor and DOR are just an email/phone call away. I have learned to speak up when issues happen and being a part of DOR services has helped me tremendously!

What does 100 years of VR mean to you?

Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a wall, it will grow up believing it is stupid!


Man wearing black rimmed glasses and a blue button up shirt

Steven Ching

Photographer and Filmmaker

Tell us about you?

I am a consumer of the Department of Rehabilitation. My aspirations for getting into film stems from the same age I was diagnosed with permanent monocular vision. My right eye was blind, but I still had the viewfinder up to my left eye at 10 years old. I carried my family camcorder everywhere I went and spent my life savings on Hi8 cassettes. I continued pursuing film with my YouTube channel in 6th grade, then started a film club at my High School. In college, I became a consumer of DOR and received equipment and tools to further help me down the path to becoming a Hollywood filmmaker! I graduated in 2017 from the film program at Sacramento State University with Magna Cum Laude honors, and currently do freelance films and photography.

How have VR Services impacted you?

Getting a job to me is a signifier of independence, achievement, redemption, and pride. As a person with a disability, I try not to let my limitations define me, but rather be qualities that make me a unique candidate. I will always work twice as hard in order to compete in an already difficult market. Currently, I am applying for a stable job as a Television Specialist in order to work in the field of my passion and get the opportunity to build a future of success with my family.

What does 100 years of VR mean to you?

To 100 years of helping us find ourselves through gratifying work.


Man standing in front of a green tractor with yellow wheel that is almost as tall as him

Joe Xavier

DOR Director

Tell us about you?

I was born in a house with no electricity and no plumbing. I am 1 of 8 kids, and I’m the only one with a disability. I am also an immigrant who needed to learn the language and culture. I grew up in agriculture with the expectation I would work. I was a child, teenager, and young adult with very poor eyesight. I was introduced to DOR services in my sophomore year in high school. I spent 14 years self-employed selling bacon/eggs and burgers/fries, and now I have 22 years in public administration.

How have VR Services impacted you?

Today I am a husband, father, and grandfather. Work allowed me to move out of poverty, it gave me the opportunity to own my home, rather than rent the home, and the opportunity to worry about my retirement plan rather than my public benefits. I was once asked if growing up I envisioned that I would become the Director of the DOR, which could not have been further from anything I could have conceived. Because so many people believed in me, I am honored to be included in a list of the distinguished company of Directors. While I would not compare myself to Ed Roberts, he was appointed by Governor Brown in his first governorship, and I was appointed by Governor Brown in his second governorship. Being in the same sentence with an icon like Ed Roberts is surreal, and ironically, when Roberts engaged DOR he was told he was unemployable. Twenty years later, I was made to believe I could accomplish anything, even though I did not believe it myself.

What does 100 years of VR mean to you?

VR means to me that we have evolved from "you can’t …, you will not be able to …" to where we are today. We believe in the talent and potential of individuals with disabilities, and we will leave no one behind, exception none. In the next 100 years, we will be out of business because all individuals with disabilities will be employed, independent, enjoy social acceptance, and have achieved equality.