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JAX Chamber ‘opening up opportunities’ for people with intellectual and developmental differences

This story appeared on the front page of the Florida Times-Union on March 1, 2020. Click here for the original feature article.

By Beth Reese Cravey

Connectable, founded in 2017 by Jacksonville philanthropist Delores Barr Weaver, will help 20 in 20 companies identify and customize positions and interview candidates, as well as provide job coaching for new employees.

Megan Bell, who has Down syndrome, is such a rock star at JAX Chamber that the business organization wants to help its members hire their own inspiring employees.

Bell, 29, was the inspiration for “20 in 20,” a year-long campaign launched Thursday that will encourage at least 20 of the chamber’s members to pledge to hire an employee with intellectual or developmental differences.

The initiative will unite area nonprofit job-placement agencies through Connectable, a Northeast Florida movement working to focus public attention on the abilities of people who have such differences rather than their limitations.

Bell, whose first job was at Publix, became a part-time office assistant at the chamber four years ago. She is proud to lead the way for 20 in 20.

“I feel good. I like to work for the Chamber of Commerce. This is my big step,” she said.

Chamber President Daniel Davis and Bell took to the podium together to make the announcement. Since she was hired, Bell has become a popular force at the chamber because of her positive attitude and dependability, Davis said.

“Without question, one of the best decisions we’ve made as a chamber is bringing Megan on board ... She’s a model employee, she’s loved by her co-workers and she gets the job done,” Davis said. “I’m proud that our business community is leading on opening up opportunities to everyone in our community.”

Board chairman Henry Brown said Davis “just raves about the impact she has made on the workforce, the happiness she brings to the environment.”

The goal of 20 in 20, Brown said, is “helping people get off the sidelines and into productive work and help them find purpose in what they’re doing, pride and self-esteem.”

Miller Electric, where Brown is CEO, “takes the same approach,” having hired some employees with physical limitations and others with criminal backgrounds. The company was one of six chamber members that have already made the pledge — the others are Auld & White Constructors, YMCA of Florida’s First Coast, Jacksonville Transportation Authority, VyStar Credit Union and

Brown said he would “not be surprised” if there are more than 20 pledges.

Connectable, founded in 2017 by Jacksonville philanthropist Delores Barr Weaver, will help 20 in 20 companies identify and customize positions and interview candidates, as well as provide job coaching for new employees.

“Our newfound partnership with the JAX Chamber ... will create meaningful connections in the business sector,” said Connectable manager Sarah Troup. ”... More businesses are realizing the positive contributions of these employees to their workforce and culture and yet the employment gap persists.”

In Florida an estimated 90 percent of people with intellectual or developmental differences do not have paid employment, she said.

“Today Jacksonville stepped into the forefront with an innovative response and partnership,” she said.

Also helping launch the initiative was Collin Hazelip, who has Down syndrome and two part-time jobs. He works two days a week as a bagger, customer greeter and cart collector at Publix and three a week as an office assistant at 121 Financial Credit Union.

Getting hired the first time, at Publix, was life changing, he said.

“I was so proud of myself, having that job,” he said.

Now 25, he loves his jobs, his co-workers and his paychecks. He wanted to be employed for the same reasons other people want to be employed, he said.

“We all need money and things to help us live,” he said.

Weaver forged the idea for Connectable after attending an event showcasing stories of local individuals with intellectual and developmental differences, or IDDs. She noted how often she heard the word “disabled” used. Through her work with area nonprofits, Weaver knew how much these people accomplished and contributed despite their differences.

She said she wanted Connectable “to change the conversation to highlight the many ways they enrich our lives.” What she began as a public awareness campaign has since become a movement, backed by her Delores Barr Weaver Fund at The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida.

Connectable works to make those conversation changes by fostering community and business connections and using “people-first” language. Replacing the word “[intellectual] disabilities” with “[intellectual] differences” is encouraged, Troup said.

“There is research that shows our language and words form perceptions and expectations, so it is important to choose our words thoughtfully,” she said. “The momentum is growing and we are eager for what the future holds.”

Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359-4109