Joe Helper, shown working at his community-based job, is one of several VIP Services clients doing so. VIP was recently awarded a grant to support impending changes that will result in VIP clients being more involved in their communities. (Submitted photo)

‘Building Full Lives’ grant to support community integration

By Heather Ruenz

Staff Writer

Taking steps now is a key component to new rules people with disabilities – and the sheltered workshops they’re employed at – will have to comply with in the future. VIP Services began preparing for those changes in advance, according to Executive Director Cindy Simonsen.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued final rules in January 2014 prohibiting the use of Medicaid Home and Community Based Services funding in settings that “isolate.” Simply put, adults with disabilities are required to have a choice to receive services in ‘non-disability specific’ settings, Simonsen said.

This rule requires complete compliance in Wisconsin by March 17, 2019 and will affect all people currently in VIP’s Pre-Vocational Training Program as well as its Day Services Program.

Another policy change signed into law in July 2014 is the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, requires schools and state vocational rehabilitation agencies to work collaboratively to ramp up pre-employment transition services to youth with disabilities beginning at the age of 14. It also restricts youth under the age of 24 to engage in work training programs that use a special certificate for sub-minimum wage, as VIP does.

Simonsen, VIP Services Director, said the most important message she wants to share about the transition and impending changes is that VIP is not shutting its doors.

“We are not going to close, people need to know that, but we are taking steps to meet federal and state mandates which will entail a major transformation of agency services,” she said.

VIP has always helped clients secure employment within the community when possible, but because of the impending deadline for integration, is now making greater efforts to connect people with their communities in a variety of ways.

In an effort to help prepare for those changes, VIP applied for, and was recently awarded a Building Full Lives in the Community Technical Assistance Grant by the Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities.

The main goal of the BPDD, according to Simonsen, is to advocate for the civil rights of people with disabilities.

“And the new rules are designed to help people be out in the communities, not only in a segregated setting as they are here,” she said.

“The Board’s Building Full Lives effort shows that people with disabilities are like anyone else. Their jobs are important to them, but so is being part of their community through volunteer work, recreational activities, getting together with friends and other activities,” Beth Swedeen, executive director of BPDD stated in a press release.

“These grants equip organizations to provide supports across community settings so that people with developmental disabilities can work, live and fully participate in their communities … We are so excited to be able to offer this new round of funding and look forward to exciting work with these new partners,” Swedeen further stated.


Ideas already in the works

Simonsen said the committee overseeing the changes will include VIP job developers, production staff and board member representatives along with community volunteers.

“We’ve already put together a lot of ideas from having staff and clients visit, and help or volunteer at different places. The grant will include training from state- and nationally-known programmatic experts, to help us learn how best to increase our program from facility-based to a more community-based reach,” she said.

The initial goal, according to Simonsen, is to involve 12 to 15 clients, to keep it manageable considering staff limitations.

“Since we’ve already begun working on some of this, we’re going to approach it the way we believe will ensure success,” she said.

Simonsen said the rules are going to instill positive changes.

“Most of us go to work, are in a club or an organization and go to those meetings and events, we go to the library, spend time at a coffee shop, go see a movie with friends and so on,” Simonsen said.

“We’re going to develop strategies that will help expose people with disabilities to new and different things, to help establish a basis for greater community inclusion,” she said.

In addition to jobs, Simonsen said VIP will work to help integrate people into leisure activities, such as art classes, library programs, and community events – as a guest, volunteer, or both.

“The grant is going to provide for training for VIP staff who will be involved in creating strategies for community inclusion for people in our work training and Day Services programs,” she added.


Challenges to be faced

Though Simonsen said there will no doubt be challenges the next two years, VIP staff will help clients every step of the way.

“They’ll have personal profiles created to help identify their interests. The key is to be realistic and have the right attitude about finding the right fit for them,” Simonsen said.

Time will also be spent working with clients on soft skills, Simonsen said, including “communication, attention to detail, accuracy, problem-solving, teamwork, time management, attendance and punctuality.”

She said for people with disabilities, facilitating their entry into the community-based workforce will improve their quality of life.

“A lot of people never got the opportunity to reach their full potential because of limitations. This will open a lot of new doors,” Simonsen said.

“Having a full life is the same for everyone – it’s about family and friends, having a job, money in your pocket, self-respect, independence and being involved in your community,” she said.

“Our goal as an agency is to help each person achieve as many of their personal goals as possible,” Simonsen said.

In addition to bringing positive change to the lives of clients, Simonsen said she’s confident it will encourage greater acceptance by community members.

“We’ve come a long way, we really have, but having people with disabilities working or volunteering at, or even just attending more community events, will hopefully bring that acceptance to a new level,” she said.

Simonsen said change always brings with it challenges, but she’s confident VIP staff, and members of the greater community, “will create plans to best integrate our clients into their communities.”

For more information about VIP Services, Inc., 811 E. Geneva St., Elkhorn, call (262) 723-4043 or visit


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