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Employment Is a Treatment That Works

March 2003

Employment Is a Treatment That Works

The year was 1988. The future did not look promising for many people. The virus had been destroying lives for a number of years, and most prescription drugs were having limited effects on people who were ill.

Drs. Jeffery Greene and Linda Laubenstein from NYU specialized in working with people who were HIV-positive. While working with hundreds of HIV-positive people, they discovered that "employment is a treatment that works." Based on this simple concept they established MTS (Multi-Tasking Systems of New York). The goal of MTS is to provide the training, tools and skills needed for people to remain in the workforce or place them in jobs through programs such as FLEX. This training was followed up by support and counseling for the worker. Over the last 14 years MTS has successfully followed this simple, but effective precept.

Out of the Cold

It was January 2002 when Della walked into MTS, looking like a hunted deer in a soft brown coat with white trim that covered her from neck to ankles. Tall with large, black, doe-like eyes darting in every direction, she was used to being hurt. Even within the warm and welcoming atmosphere of the training center she could not let down her guard. Her well-worn coat, wrapped tightly around her slim body by arms that were trying to both protect and repel at the same time, acted as a safety shield in the strange environment. She approached the receptionist's desk with small, reluctant steps, afraid to speak, but knowing that she had to. She wanted to run away, but she had been running all her life and now she had decided to stop.

As a 35-year-old, she knew that the time had come to stop running. Her HIV had forced her to slow down and even to stop many times, but she was not going to let it stop her for good. Too many other things had threatened her over the years. She had tried to make the hurt go away many times, but everything she tried only seemed to hurt her in another way. Alcohol and drugs eased the hurt for a few hours, but the pain always came back. When she heard about the training program and the opportunity to go to work, she knew that this might be a way out for her. She knew that she was not going to be conquered by her circumstances any more. Wanting to live; not just survive, to see her only child grow up, to move out of welfare and dependence.

"May I have your name?"

"Della," she spoke softly. "I have an appointment with ...?"

"Oh, Della, we've been expecting you, you have an appointment with Mr. Holmes." The wait was very short.

Very quickly, Mr. Holmes walked up to her and extended his hand and greeted her warmly, "Good Morning, I was expecting you. How nice of you to come today."

Who is he kidding, thought Della? Why is he being nice? His smile looked sincere, his tone of voice was pleasant. She followed him slowly back to his office.

"Della, tell me about your dreams and what you want to do."

No one had ever asked her about her dreams before. How did he know that she had dreams?

She closed her eyes and began to think back to when she was a child and what she had wanted in life. Suddenly she began talking, quietly and with a frightened tone. The more she spoke the more the words came. Someone was listening to her. No judgments, no raised eyebrows, no sighs ... he was just listening. She talked and talked about wanting to have a nice apartment out of the neighborhood where she could continue to raise her child safely, about wanting to dress up and go to work everyday. She wanted to come home and cook, clean, and do the things others did. She wanted some respect. She wanted some independence. She wanted some money to spend on herself and her child. As she talked, she realized that Mr. Holmes was telling her by his looks and support that she was asking for the possible. What she wanted was the same as what everyone else wanted.

Della decided to enroll at MTS.

Gaining Confidence

The classes began the next week. She was frightened, but anxious to begin. She walked into the class with the coat wrapped tightly around her.

The instructor was young and friendly. She made the class interesting and kept everyone busy. Della realized that she was learning about how an office operated. She liked what she was learning. The instructor was asking her questions and she knew the answers, even if she didn't raise her hand to answer. If the instructor called on her, she would quietly give the correct answer. She always felt like she might make a fool of herself. The instructor taught them how to write letters on the computer, about e-mail, about the Internet. She had only heard about these before, now she was learning about them. She felt excitement about what she was learning.

The weeks passed and the days grew warmer, but she kept her coat on. Della worked very hard in computer class. She found that she had a natural feel for the computer. It made sense to her. If she hit a wrong key, she knew how to make a correction. It was just common sense and logic. She quickly learned that she was in command of the computer. She gave it directions, and it responded. Each new day brought her greater confidence.

Everyday she was learning something new. The instructor told her that she could begin to work on advanced lessons. That she didn't need to wait for the rest of the class. The other students began to ask her questions because they knew she could help if they couldn't do the assignment. It was with a feeling of accomplishment that she would hit the print command and see the results of her work. She began to experiment with various options on the computer and found that she was able to create new and interesting documents. Her creativity began to emerge as she learned the program PowerPoint.

Shedding Her Coat

The last day of class came all too soon. She was afraid of the exam. She had never done well on exams in school. She came into the classroom and took her seat. She kept the brown coat on. The instructor handed out the exam. She began to do the problems and answer the questions. She took off her coat and let it fall to the floor behind her. She pushed back her chair and rolled over the coat. She pushed it out of the way with her foot. She needed room to think and the coat was in the way.

She turned to the last page and here were the last of the dreaded questions. She answered each of them and looked at her watch. She had only taken an hour to do the exam. She began to worry. Maybe she had done it all wrong. She reached for her coat. It wasn't there. She looked around for it. It was all balled up under her desk. She had done the exam without the coat to protect her. She walked to the front of the room with the exam. The coat remained on the floor. She glanced at the answers. She felt confident and handed the paper and printouts to the instructor. He looked up and smiled. "Take a 10 minute break and I will have this corrected when you return," he said. She walked out of the room without looking back for her coat.

In ten minutes she returned. The instructor looked up and smiled. He passed her the papers and pointed to the 98% in the corner. "You did an excellent job on the exam, congratulations," he said. He then handed her a certificate proclaiming that she had successfully completed the course. This was the first time in her life that she had received a certificate for going to school. Filled with pride, she couldn't wait to get home and show her daughter. As she walked out of the classroom, she picked up the brown coat. She slowly looked at it and carelessly threw it over her arm. When she got outside she saw a homeless person and handed her the coat.

On Tuesday of the next week, the instructor looked up to see Della walk into the classroom. He hardly recognized her. She was smiling. She stood before him in a beautiful new white coat.

"I have come for the workshop," she said. "I am ready to find a job."

Halton E. Merrill works with Multi-Tasking Systems (MTS) of New York.

This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.
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