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Developing a Relationship Strategy

by Vici Garber

“It is important to note that our relationship was not an overnight success. It was established over time with a foundation built on trust, follow-through, collaboration, and proven expertise.”

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) was signed into law in July, 2014. WIOA has five mandated workforce titles that include Adult Education (Title II) and the Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services (Title IV). All titles are charged with working together to help job seekers succeed in the labor market and employers find skilled workers. For some regions, the prospect of these titles working together may have seemed daunting. For Region 6, Shenandoah Initiative for Adult Education (SHINE), we already had the beginnings of partnerships with most of the entities and strong ties with others. WIOA’s objective fit with our regional goals and by sharing how our regional relationships have been built and cultivated over the years, it is our hope that other programs can benefit from what we have learned.

SHINE has a strong, longstanding relationship with the Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS). Region 6 has two DARS offices covering its five counties. Both offices are managed by Jessica DeCarlo and overseen by John Jackson, the District Manager. It is important to note that our relationship was not an overnight success. It was established over time with a foundation built on trust, follow-through, collaboration, and proven expertise. This partnership took years to build to where we are today and it took cooperation on all levels within both SHINE and DARS. It wasn’t just one event or program that made this work for us. It was a lot of little things that built upon each other.

To elaborate, a year after I was hired as Regional Specialist; Region 6’s Regional Program Manager, Katy Parrish, had two main directives for me. One, I was to form partnerships within our region and two, to put SHINE’s name on the map. I took this responsibility to heart and put my people-skills into action. I spent years building my reputation, as well as SHINE’s, as a networking hub and team-focused partner.

Collaborate on Grants

One of the best examples of SHINE’s partnership with DARS occurred in 2017. Our region was awarded funding through the Career Pathways for Individuals with Disabilities (CPID) grant. This partnership was a multi-agency endeavor, which also included the Division of the Blind and Visually Impaired, the Shenandoah Valley Workforce Development Board, and Blue Ridge Community College (BRCC). A logistics program was initially designed, with SHINE providing just a small section of Job Readiness instruction for the first week. During a community information session, BRCC’s career coach supervisor inquired as to who was providing the BRCC instructor with support during their instruction. With that question, SHINE was invited into an integrated co-teaching classroom. This change allowed SHINE to demonstrate our value in working with the DARS population to the partner organizations. With so many eyes on the program, detailed reports and regular updates were provided to all partners and this communication flow strengthened our relationship with DARS.

One especially important relationship established through the CPID program was with Paula Martin, the DARS Assistive Technology Specialist. Paula’s role was to provide assistive technology support to the participants. She was in the classroom weekly to present useful tools that addressed multiple challenges. Paula and I worked closely within the classroom as well as spending time reflecting on needs and successes throughout the program. This formed a relationship that is still strong today. To illustrate, one of our first in-person trainings after the pandemic was provided by Adult Ed in partnership with DARS. Paula manned the registration table and she told all the other DARS representatives, “She is mine!” That sums up our relationship.

Serve on Committees, Councils, and Boards

To give another example, the SHINE Regional Program Manager and Regional Specialist together serve on numerous committees, councils, and boards. Both SHINE and DARS serve on the region’s Business Solutions Team (BST), Partners Team, Shenandoah Valley Workforce Development Board (SVWDB), Way to Go Board, Harrisonburg Rockingham Page Reentry Council (HRPRC), and the Central Shenandoah Valley Reentry Council (CSVRC). While the Regional Program Manager tends to focus on state level and regional leadership teams, the Regional Specialist infiltrates the hive of “worker bees.” Aline Jackson-Diggs, DARS DOLI Registered Apprenticeship Liaison—a networking powerhouse in her own right—and the Regional Specialist, having similar personalities, are very active within the community. Both were recently recruited by a local employer, Friendship Industries, to serve on their board.

Coordinate Referrals

A significant benefit for adult education programs is that DARS can be a funding resource for qualifying learners. If someone is referred by DARS, their enrollment and/or NEDP fees can be covered. Jessica Chenowith, coordinator of the Staunton Augusta Adult Learning Center, contacts DARS when she observes a struggling learner. She has helped set up services through DARS and the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center to assist learners with their GED® and NEDP credentials. DARS is also one of SHINE’s regular referring agencies. Dana Biby, DARS Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, shared her thoughts, “I have referred numerous people to the Adult Learning Center in Fishersville for either the GED® or the NEDP [program]. The staff there have always been very courteous and helpful. In particular, Jessica Chenowith always displays a great deal of compassion for the folks I refer there. They are also very good about providing monthly progress updates on my clients which is extremely helpful. Overall, I have been very pleased with our partnership.”

John Jackson, District Director for the Skyline District, had this to say about the SHINE/DARS partnership, “SHINE has been a valuable asset in the Shenandoah Valley and specifically to the participants working with the Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services (Division of Rehab Services). We have been able to periodically include SHINE in our staff meetings for updates on unique resources in the community and have assisted our clients with securing competitive integrated employment. SHINE has also been a link between community service providers which has encouraged a more collaborative approach to service provision. Vici Garber is awesome!”

Present at Meetings

Through invitations for adult education to present at DARS staff meetings, the DARS counselors have a face to a name, which has led to more comfortable communication and increased interaction. DARS counselors have become more apt to contact the Regional Specialist to discuss unusual educational needs for their clients and once arrangements are approved, the counselor is connected to the SHINE program covering the service area. Penni Wetherell, DARS Vocational Placement Counselor, stated, “… you have been kind enough to include me to staff unique and challenging cases with the group in order to obtain job opportunities I may not be aware of… great networking and very appreciated!” Further, the Regional Specialist assists counselors in staffing, or setting up an action plan, giving the client detailed information on education opportunities within the region. At one point, the Regional Specialist was so involved with the DARS staff that when the former Business Development Manager for Workforce Programs resigned, he requested for the Regional Specialist to apply for his position.

Provide Letters of Support

DARS is always willing to provide support letters for SHINE program grant applications. They are one of SHINE’s first contacts when requesting reports and they provide letters for AEFLA/IELCE and PluggedInVA. The strength of our partnership was proven, when pre-pandemic, SHINE was invited by Sharon Johnson, the CEO of the Shenandoah Valley Workforce Development Board to assist with a grant opportunity to serve the reentry population that would cover three workforce development areas. Two days before the grant submission, we were instructed to obtain support letters. SHINE advised that we would obtain the needed support letters including one from DARS. After being told by the other regions that DARS would not be able to provide one within the two-day time window, one was obtained. I was advised from the state level that they recognized SHINE because John Jackson regularly submitted requests for us.

Collaborate on Reentry

One reason SHINE and DARS share such a strong relationship is due to reentry. The Regional Specialist is the chair of the Central Shenandoah Valley Reentry Council (CSVRC) and the vice-chair of the Harrisonburg Rockingham Page Reentry Council (HRPRC). These positions have made her a hub for networking. DARS is a part of that network. Years ago, through HRPRC, the Regional Specialist formed a relationship with the then manager of the Harrisonburg DARS office and the two often sat together during meetings. That manager, John Jackson, is now the district director covering all of Region 6’s area. Because of our joint mission on the reentry council, John Jackson, supported the Good Time Release Reentry Resource fairs that ran for eight consecutive weeks. He showed up for kick-off day and each local DARS manager allowed staff to cover resource tables throughout both the CSVRC and HRPRC events. Further, through monthly CSVRC meetings and serving on sub-committees together, the Regional Specialist and Dana Biby, the DARS Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor for Augusta and Rockbridge Counties who specializes in addiction, have formed a close relationship. Being like-minded and driven to serve our populations as best as possible, both meet monthly to strategize reentry solutions and update each other on program changes and/or needs.

I personally am proud of the relationship that has been built with DARS. It took time and effort on both sides. Maybe it was the right combinations of personalities. Maybe it was sitting at the same tables, month in and month out, while serving on our committees, councils, and boards. Maybe it was working together to address community needs. Maybe it was both sides learning about each other’s services and covering for each other when one entity was missing from an event. There are a lot of maybes. What I do know is that all those maybes formed an amazing partnership.

Photo of Vici GarberVici Garber is the Region 6 Regional Specialist and PluggedInVA Coordinator. She started her career in adult education in 2001 with a focus on employment services. She has previously worked as an independent GED® tutor, an employment specialist, and an ESOL instructor. Through the Shenandoah Initiative for Adult Education (SHINE), she has served as an instructor for GED® classes, Job Readiness, and PluggedInVA. She has created successful programs that run at Middle River Regional Jail and Shenandoah Valley Social Services. Vici was the 2018 recipient of the Virginia Association for Adult and Continuing Education (VAACE) Teacher of the Year award.

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