Materials Management Supervisor, Jim O'Neill, has worked in the mail room for the past 38 years. During that time, he's seen plenty of changes—his memory reaches back to before the Enders building existed. When he started, his department was called Supply Distribution and functioned 24 hours a day to distribute everything from pharmaceuticals and linens to food and flowers. But one thing that hasn't changed in all this time is his, and his department's, commitment to welcoming people with disabilities and special health care needs.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the partnership between Children's Hospital Boston's Work Experience Program (WEP) and the Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI). From the start, O'Neill has played an integral role in the program, which offers temporary jobs throughout Children's to people with physical and mental disabilities. These jobs allow the program's participants to develop work skills, foster personal relationships and gain independence. "People can be productive even if they're in a wheelchair—everyone should know that," O'Neill says. "But there can be bias. This program gives everyone the same chance you or I would want: to be productive in your own community."
Materials Management is one of eight Children's departments that hires WEP participants, many of whom are actually current or former Children's
patients. O'Neill sees the potential in each of them and finds ways
to tailor tasks to
individuals' capabilities. He oversees two trainees at a time, and over the years, that's added up to hundreds of people. When his WEP trainees walk into the mail room to report for their first day of work, it's usually the first time they've ever earned a paycheck, met coworkers or even learned how to preform job-related tasks. "It's a whole new experience for them," O'Neill says. "Lots of times, they're really nervous." But that timidity usually doesn't last, and O'Neill loves to watch the transformation of trainees, or "the kids," as he affectionately calls them—from scared, sometimes silent newcomers to productive social butterflies. "They start getting their people skills honed, and many of them form strong friendships," he says. Often, after a few months, trainees meet up and go bowling or to the movies or shop downtown. "They end up doing everything you hope they'll do—go out, socialize and be part of the community."
O'Neill trains the "kids" through a buddy system he created. First, a full-time mail room staffer (who's sometimes a WEP grad) shows the trainee the mail sorting system and takes her along one of the mail routes for two weeks. After she's learned the route, a big moment arrives: the day she can do the route on her own. "They prove to themselves they can do the job," he says. And O'Neill will do whatever it takes to make them successful. If someone uses a wheelchair, he'll strap the mail bags onto her chair. Or if someone has vision problems, O'Neill will put large numbers on mail buckets representing departments so she won't have to try to read small print.
Although trainees are temporary employees, their jobs are crucial to the department's success: The mail room delivers to 19 locations along Longwood Avenue, and sorts and distributes thousands of pieces of mail to employees and patients each day. "We do one million pieces of interoffice and regular mail each year—that's more than most town post
offices," O'Neill says. "So these aren't fake jobs. These are real positions that any other mail room employee would have."
For many WEP workers, the mail room is a gateway into the workforce, both at Children's and beyond. O'Neill himself has hired dozens of graduates as full-time employees. Right now, of the 11 mail room staff, five are former WEP participants. Jobs don't open up very often in the department (half of its staff has worked there for more than 18 years), so when they do, O'Neill is quick to notify the graduates. He also acts as a reference for scores of others. "By the end of the six months, they've learned more about their own interests and abilities," he says. "And once they get experience and, more importantly, the confidence that they can hold a job, they can get one somewhere else a lot more easily."
One graduate has been working in the Mail and Copy Center at Simmons College for the past four years, another works at a government transportation company in Cambridge in the mail room. A third, Mary Denning, started her career at Children's in the mail room in 2004, and has steadily worked part-time jobs at Children's ever since. Mary remembers her time there fondly. "Jim was very nice and very funny," she says. "The skills that he helped me learn gave me the confidence to do the job I have with Public Affairs delivering their publications. Thank you, Jim!"
But no matter where they go, none of the WEP participants forget the mail room or O'Neill. He's in touch with most of the graduates, sometimes decades after they've left, and many regularly stop by to say "hello" to him and their former coworkers on the way to their new jobs. "They always drop by—and it's really a lot of people who do," he says. "I still get Christmas cards from people who went through the program 25 years ago."
A 30th anniversary celebration to honor the
participants and managers who have been part of the ICI/WEP collaboration will be held June 8, from noon to 1:30 p.m. at the Longwood Inn.