Alabama Customized Employment:
Partnership and Collaborative Efforts
Grant number, name, and location: Alabama Customized Employment, Montgomery AL, # E-9-4-2-0094
Grant recipient: Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs
Project lead: Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs
Subcontractors: Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, Alabama WIB, Janice Capilouto Center for the Deaf, Central Alabama Easter Seals, East Alabama Easter Seals, Department of Rehabilitation Services, Department of Medicaid, Governor's Office on Disabilities, Small Business Development Centers, STAR Program.
The Alabama Customized Employment (ACE) project was implemented throughout Alabama with the exception of Jefferson and Mobile counties. The ACE grant funded three demonstration projects: ACE Microenterprise, Janice Capilouto Center for the Deaf-Easter Seals Work Conditioning, and Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services-SAIL.
- Partnerships were based on mutual respect and appreciation for each others' knowledge. ACE program staff relied on VR counselors for disability and rehabilitation expertise while VR counselors relied on ACE staff for small business expertise.
- Opportunities for joint activities among staff from different partner agencies were critical in developing relationships and trust.
- Partnerships extended well beyond the workforce development and disability providers to include a range of small business entities. Accessing these generic entities greatly expanded resources available to individuals with disabilities.
Though many active participants contributed to ACE's success, the key collaborative relationship was between VR and the ACE Microenterprise staff. This bridge was built initially by a former ACE administrator who had been the assistant VR commissioner prior to that position. Furthermore, because the ACE program was located in the same building as VR, close proximity aided in developing relationships prior to the project's inception.
Once the grant was funded, the partners held a series of collaborative activities. At the administrative level, quarterly meetings were held to conduct status reports, identify challenges and solutions, and maintain communication between all the key entities of the project. According to one staff person, these meetings were held "to discuss program successes and failures and to collaborate on solutions to common problems." Staff prepared minutes and gave formal presentations. These meetings improved communication, built a strong alliance, and aided in receiving client referrals.
At the frontline level, strong working relationships between VR and counselors at ACE were critical because staff worked together to meet the needs of each individual client. Although preliminary connections existed, the ACE program had to establish a way to educate VR counselors on the range of small business supports they offered. ACE personnel chose to conduct project overviews at regular VR meetings as a method of raising awareness. Through this effort, both entities learned the value of ongoing communication and increased VR counselors' understanding of ACE's unique small business development expertise.
Expertise of Partners
While working jointly with individuals with disabilities seeking self-employment, ACE frontline program staff and the VR counselors relied heavily on each other's expertise. This reliance was primarily because the small business consultant had extensive experience in microenterprise, business outreach, and business consultancy, but no experience in employment for people with disabilities. Although she understood the range of small business options, she was new to the vocational rehabilitation process. As a result, ACE program staff relied on VR counselors for disability and rehabilitation expertise while VR counselors relied on ACE staff for small business expertise (click here for more information).
The success of the ACE Microenterprise program hinged on this strong working relationship between ACE's business-savvy staff and VR counselors' expertise in rehabilitation and disability. These two entities, each with a totally different set of skills relied on one another as they worked together to meet the self-employment needs of job seekers with disabilities. Joint evaluation and assessment were critical, for example, especially for small business experts who might not understand the complex issues faced by people with disabilities. Within the context of this interdependence, staff could address other critical variables such as funding constraints and look at creative braiding or blending of funds to reach the self-employment goals of this population.
Other programs that the ACE Microenterprise Program linked to included the U.S. Small Business Administration, Social Security Administration, and Birmingham Business Resource Center Lending Program. In addition, they networked with Legal Services Alabama, U.S. Internal Revenue Service, Alabama Small Business Consortium, Alabama State University Small Business Development Center, and Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, which administered the grant. ACE had an active membership in the Alabama Microenterprise Network, which held regular meetings and conferences to strengthen microenterprises in Alabama. Finally, ACE staff connected to the Chamber of Commerce Minority Entrepreneur Development Conference.