January 15, 2019

On the Job: Paula Johnson at St. Clair Associated Vocational Enterprises (SAVE)

Paula Johnson is a member of AFSCME Local 1831.

Tell us about your job at SAVE.

I’m a direct care-giver at St. Clair Associated Vocational Enterprises (SAVE), a [state-funded] not-for-profit organization that provides employment opportunities for adults with disabilities. My job is to teach our clients in the vocational programs how to complete tasks involved in the contracts we receive from employers to help them learn the skills they need to work.

I’ve also been working a lot of overtime lately in our housing program. We go into clients’ homes and help them cook and clean, take them to places they need to go like the store, the bank or the beauty shop. We make grocery lists with them and help come up with new, simple meal ideas that they can cook safely.

What’s your inspiration to go to work every day?

Our clients motivate me. I’ve been working here for more than 22 years and they are always so happy to see me. I go to work for them. They are positive about everything, as if they don’t have a worry in the world.

Teaching them skills and building trust make my work very meaningful. Their work instills a feeling of their self-worth. They don’t care how big their paycheck is, they are just so happy to get one.

I love seeing their excitement.

How does your job provide a valuable public service?

Our clients have built motors for furnaces, worked on the state license stickers, rolled up silverware sets for a catering company, compiled screw kits for furniture sets and more.

Our clients’ work is benefiting companies in the community because we can help them with their work. And our clients benefit from those jobs. It’s a place for them to go every day. It gives them a feeling that they belong somewhere. That they are part of it all—they like having to get up and go to work too.

What have you learned from your career at SAVE?

Working here makes you feel like you don’t want to take anything for granted. Some of our clients were in car wrecks or suffered from injuries that changed their life forever. And some have had challenges since birth.

There are little things all the time that make me stop and appreciate what I have. I took a client to a clothing store. She grabbed some clothes and was ready to leave and I said, ‘Don’t you want to try those on?’ I helped her into a fitting room.

On the way back, we were both singing along to a song in the car. After the song ended she turned to me and said, ‘Thank you, Paula, I’ve never done that before.’ I said, ‘But you have shopped for clothes before.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, but I’ve never gotten to try them on first!’ She was so thankful.

There are a lot of little stories like that. They appreciate the little stuff and now I do too.

How does your union improve your work?

If we didn’t have a union, one person might be able to get by with stuff that someone else couldn’t. If they didn’t like you, you might not be there anymore. With a union, there is fairness.

Having a union also gives us the ability to really advocate for our clients. We can go to management if something isn’t fair or isn’t right for them. If I ever did something else, it would be to become a full-time advocate for people with disabilities. There’s so much more we should be doing.

How has your job affected your family?

I’ve worked here since my oldest son was just a baby. Our clients know my husband, they know my kids, and they love having them here. Throughout the year—and especially during the holidays—we have parties, banquets and dances. Our kids grew up coming to the parties and dances. It’s had a huge impact on their lives.

My son is a sports fanatic—he’s what you would call a jock. There was a kid at his school who was disabled and he was being teased by other jocks. My son stood up for him. He told his friends to leave him alone, that that’s not cool. Being part of SAVE, my son learned that every life is important.

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