Nevada County nonprofit secures funding to help people with disabilities find employment
When Tyler Szura heard his older brother, Kevin, say he felt trapped in a decade-long job that offered minimal job skills training, less than minimum wage and limited future opportunities to grow, something clicked in Tyler’s brain. Kevin Szura, who has cerebral palsy and studied engineering at Sierra College, wasn’t the only person with a disability to feel isolated from the community, undervalued, under-utilized and underpaid. Something had to change.
In November of 2017, Tyler Szura founded tkMomentum, a nonprofit organization inspired by his brother’s experiences, with the “tk” representing the first letters of each brother’s name. Since its inception, the two brothers’ mission has resonated profoundly with many Nevada County people who have disabilities, along with their families — and has inspired a growing number of businesses to jump on board. At just 26, Tyler Szura has also now secured funding for tkMomentum from the California Department of Rehabilitation, which will further aid in helping individuals with disabilities to search, train and find employment. Tyler Szura, who continues to work countless hours without pay as the executive director, said he feels even more inspired with each new client and each new funding opportunity or donation. Kevin Szura now works as a client advocate.
During that first year, the brothers teamed up to launch tkMomentum’s first program, “AbleCarts,” a grocery delivery service operated by people with disabilities. Earning at least minimum wage, clients work in an inclusive environment where they can learn, grow professionally and ideally move on to mainstream employment opportunities. In September 2018, SPD Market in Nevada City opened its doors to the AbleCarts program, and clients are now regularly seen working around the store, gathering items for delivery and learning the inventory. Since then, inspired by tkMomentum’s “community inclusion” vision, the BriarPatch Food Co-op and California Organics have also both expressed interest in bringing in AbleCarts. Currently, students at the University of Colorado, Boulder, are developing an ambitious mobile app where both clients and shoppers can click on images of desired items in the store.
EMPLOYMENT SERVICES ADDED
This year, thanks to state funding, tkMomentum was able to add their Community Employment Services program, which aids in job preparation, such as resume writing and interview practice; job development, including job searching tools and advice on how to connect with potential employers; and on-the-job support and coaching.
“The Employment Services program has now eclipsed AbleCarts, which is exciting because it will have a broader reach,” said Tyler Szura. “tkMomentum has experienced 400% growth since its inception — clearly we’ve established that there’s a real need for these kinds of services. We’re currently in the process of expanding down to Auburn.”
A key component of the program is the development of a detailed, customized employment plan for each client-employee, as each individual faces unique challenges or barriers. On some occasions, said Tyler Szura, training goes well beyond the task at hand.
“For example, a client may need to learn coping skills, life organization or the value of punctuality,” he said. “We helped one client learn that he had to go to bed by 10 p.m. in order to be fresh for the next day. We created an at-home schedule that included bedtime, setting the alarm, getting clothes ready, taking a shower and knowing what time to head out the door. It made all the difference. Regular employers don’t generally think to take these things into account, or have the time.”
The whole point, he added, is to remove the barriers that are preventing a client from obtaining competitive employment and to embrace the concept of community inclusion so that clients are working in everyday settings and earning a fair wage. Two new employees in charge of client support have recently joined the team — Sarah Dykstra, who works full time, and Katherine Hatten, who currently works part time.
FINANCIAL SUPPORT NEEDED
At tkMomentum’s holiday “disABILITY Employability Awareness Fundraiser Program” on Dec. 10 in Grass Valley, it was evident that some of Nevada County’s large businesses have now extended their support. They now see that tkMomentum has established credibility and is making a valuable contribution to the community. Additionally, involved families and clients themselves spoke to the value of inclusion, purpose and integrity. But more financial support is needed.
“tkMomentum has provided an opportunity that André has not had before,” said Laurie DesJardins, whose 26-year-old son has autism. “He’s a very bright and friendly individual who has more skills than many people realize. He’s now an intern at AbleCarts and to see him integrated into the community is so wonderful. We are so grateful to SPD. I see André experiencing a real sense of satisfaction and accomplishment — he’s happy.”
While tkMomentum has established credibility in the eyes of the state and identified a need in Nevada County, more private donations are needed to augment government funding and expand the program’s reach. Tyler Szura continues to work more than 40 hours a week and refuses to take a paycheck. The small office he shares with his brother in Nevada City currently has a single plastic picnic table, illustrating their commitment to putting the bulk of their funding back into their clients.
“I have one client who told me he’s been told ‘no’ his entire life when it came to employment, and now he’s working with us,” said Tyler Szura. “We want to build economic sustainability in each individual. Some big organizations lose sight of what they’re trying to do. We measure success by the success of each individual. It’s completely person-driven. We’re never going to lose sight of our vision, and my dream is to see other communities and businesses become involved.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, disabled Americans earn much less than those without a disability — if they’re given the opportunity to work. In 2015, those with a disability earned a median of $21,572 — less than 70% of the median earnings for those without a disability. Research has also demonstrated that disabled individuals report lower levels of well-being and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that a whopping 80% of disabled Americans are not employed at all.
“Tyler is such a positive, enthusiastic individual who has a perceptive ability to look at someone and identify their strengths — he’s doing this for all the right reasons,” said DesJardins. “Seeing my son André included and truly accepted means the world to me. Finally he has an opportunity to shine a little brighter.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4203.
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