Thank you to George Mason University for featuring Didlake and commemorating NDEAM in their interview with our Vice President of Corporate Communications & Marketing Erika Spalding.
Erika Spalding, BS Marketing ’07, is the vice president of corporate communications & marketing at Didlake, a nonprofit that creates and implements services and programs that assist people with disabilities find employment in today’s competitive workforce. A former president of the School of Business Alumni Chapter, Spalding spoke with Jennifer Rhodes, EMBA ’05, about Didlake’s mission, detailing the wide range of services that Didlake provides, and why the nonprofit’s mission is so personal. You can read the full article on the George Mason University website.
Source: George Mason University
Published: October 2021
Original story: https://business.gmu.edu/news/2516-marketing-alumna-creates-employment-opportunities-for-people-with-disabilities/
Jennifer: Hello everyone. My name is Jennifer Rhodes, and I am proud to be with Erika Spalding of Didlake. And today we’re gonna talk about National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Erika Spalding is the Vice President of Corporate Communications and Marketing for Didlake Inc. Didlake is a 54-year-old, nonprofit rehabilitative service organization based in Manassas, Virginia. Didlake’s mission is creating opportunities that enrich the lives of people with disabilities. Through her work at Didlake, Erika oversees internal communications, public relations, and marketing. She also oversees operations of the UPS Store 6656 and 6631, which is owned and operated by Didlake. Previously, to Didlake, Erika worked for D.R. Horton, and George Mason University’s Mason Enterprise Center. Erika is a proud graduate of George Mason University. Please join me in welcoming Erika to our podcast. Erika, we’re gonna start with a few questions. So, can you tell us about Didlake and what it is you do there?
Erika: Absolutely. Thank you, Jennifer, for having me here today. Didlake, as you said, is a nonprofit based out of Manassas, Virginia. And we have three distinct opportunities that we provide for individuals with disabilities. The first is our day support program, where individuals spend the day with us on Monday through Friday, and have opportunities for community inclusion and engagement. Our Employment Services Program helps individuals who are looking to work at commercial employers out in the community and support them from job…understanding what job they’re looking for all the way through to helping them keep that job as they move further along in their career. In addition to that, we are an employer of people with disabilities.
We provide employment opportunities for individuals who have, maybe not been able to be as successful in commercial employers, and would benefit from a rehabilitative work environment. So we provide that opportunity. 80% of our employees approximately are individuals with disabilities and significant disabilities. And we are at federal contract sites through the AbilityOne Program, which we’ve been a part of for over 30 years. And we also are at state contracts sites, city contracts, like you said, the two UPS Stores. And we also have Didlake Document Imaging and Didlake Photo Imaging where we scan documents and images for commercial businesses, the government, and individuals who want their pictures scanned.
Jennifer: Wonderful. That’s a lot of work that you do.
Erika: We do a lot.
Jennifer: It’s a lot, great. Can you tell us how did you initially get interested in the mission of working in employment opportunities for people with disabilities? What drew you to that work?
Erika: So you had mentioned earlier that I worked at George Mason. So before I got my degree, I worked there for about four years at the Mason Enterprise Center, and learned a lot about nonprofit and really loved the work. So when I went to get my degree in my mid-20s, I focused on nonprofit through all my coursework. I did get my business degree in marketing, but utilized that, I took a nonprofit marketing class that’s available at Mason, which is an awesome opportunity to learn how to market. It’s a little bit different to market a nonprofit than it is a traditional business. And when I graduated, what a lot of people don’t know is that I have an anxiety disorder, and I’m exceptionally claustrophobic. That means that I cannot take an elevator and I can’t fly.
So, when I went to search for a job after I graduated, my friend told me about a business, a nonprofit that I could work for, where I didn’t have to take an elevator in the building because it’s two storeys, and there’s actually an entrance it’s on a hill, and there’s an entrance in the front, and an entrance in the rear. And so, I interviewed for the job and I got the job, which was great. Well, as I keep progressing in my career, it became more and more important that I was able to travel, and I was able to take elevators, and I just want to digress for a second, because when you talk about not being able to take elevators, a lot of people say, “Oh well, how could that be a big deal? Just take the stairs.” So, my job interview process was really challenging when I graduated, because I didn’t know when I would go for an interview, whether or not I would have to take an elevator. And because I couldn’t get on the elevator, literally, would have a full-on panic attack in the lobby of businesses, and I had had this happen to me that I couldn’t get on an elevator.
Then, I would start to look at Google Maps to see how big the shadow was on buildings to understand, well, what floor do I think I’m gonna be on? And then in addition to that, sometimes you go to try to take the stairs, and the stairwell would be locked. And it really, really limited my job choices. So I had a personal experience, understanding how my disability was getting in the way of my employment opportunities. So when I got to Didlake, and I learned about job coaches, and we call them employment specialists, helping individuals to be able to be successful at work and then also, I had some extensive therapy EMDR therapy to help me with my panic disorder and my claustrophobia. Paired together, I realized that there are so many people out there who, you know, we serve thousands of people, but there are thousands more people who are out there who aren’t being served and don’t know that, you know, they may be afraid of elevators, or they may have some other component of their own disability, that they don’t realize the services exist for them, and that they can get help through the state or through organizations like Didlake.
Jennifer: Wow, that is a wonderful answer. That’s a really good example of making it, you know, personal to you, obviously, but helping us understand all the different variables that can go into, you know, why these types of programs are important for others. So, can you tell us a little bit of how you witnessed people’s lives really being changed and improved through this work?
Erika: We have a lot of goal-oriented people who work at Didlake and that we serve. Everybody has got an individual support plan and they really are able to put on paper and say, “You know, this is what I wanna accomplish in my life.” And we knowing those goals, help them get there. One of the ways we’ve done that is through individuals learning to drive and getting their driver’s license. We’ve helped individuals get their GED, go to, you know, a trade school, be able to go to college, get an apartment for their first time and live independently. So, really… And, oh, there was a really cool one last year, a woman in one of our programs wanted to ride a helicopter. And that was her goal. And, you know, she made it happen, and it was great. So, it’s really important that everybody think about the goals that they have and really push for something that’s more than they think they’re capable of. It’s really when you set that bar, and then move higher that we really, you know, people can be incredibly successful.
Jennifer: Great, great. What is something that surprised you or something that you’ve learned while that Didlake?
Erika: Really learning about employment specialists, and the work that they do to support individuals in the community to work, how they learn the job for…alongside the individual to help provide support. And another thing I learned was the really low participation rate of individuals with disabilities in the labor force. The last time I looked at it, it was around 76% of individuals with disabilities in the United States who are not participating in the workforce. And that’s a barrier for individuals that they have a barrier in their life that they’re not able to overcome. And with more support and more funds through the state, we would be able to help more individuals work, and contribute, and have purpose.
Jennifer: How has Didlake made any adjustments during the pandemic?
Erika: So, certainly the pandemic affected our nonprofit, unlike other nonprofits and businesses, one of the ways was our Day Support Program. We wanna create a safe environment. And when the pandemic initially started, we did have to close our programs for a few months. We worked with our team. We have an internal crisis team to determine the best steps to move forward to operate safely. And we were able to open in June and we were the first Day Support Programs in the state to open successfully and safely, and are still opening and able to run today. We did have some contracts that also were put on hold for a time when government employees left the sites. We did what we could to support our employees to continue their income during that time.
And I’m really proud of that, you know, it’s really was important that people were able to maintain their livelihood, even though their work may be affected. We’ve also diversified. Didlake Photo Imaging came out of that pandemic. A lot of people were knowing that we did scanning and asked us if we could scan their photos, and they were cleaning things out in the spring last year. And we said, “You know what? What a great opportunity to create not only a business but more job opportunities for people with significant disabilities.” So it was a really nice pairing.
Jennifer: Erika, what’s the absolute favorite part of your job?
Erika: Creating jobs and creating opportunities. So, through our employment opportunities, looking at helping people, whether they work for Didlake, or they work for an employer out in the community, helping people get jobs and creating more jobs for people that they’re interested in working in and being successful. And then from an opportunity perspective, we’ve worked really hard in our day support program to create a diverse amount of opportunities, one of which is volunteering out in the community. So, our day support program participants are able to go to nonprofits in the areas in which they are served, and be able to volunteer during the day at food banks, and through Salvation Army, and the Red Cross. It’s been really exciting.
Jennifer: Wonderful. Well, speaking about volunteer opportunities, are there opportunities for others to get involved either as volunteers, as individuals, or with their companies? Can you tell us about that?
Erika: Absolutely. So we have…we’re a nonprofit, so we do have a board. If someone is interested in being on our board, certainly, please reach out to me and let me know and I’ll connect you. In addition to that, we have a page on our website that is called We Create Opportunities – You Can Too! And it outlines the nine different ways that you can be a part of our mission, whether that is hiring an individual with a disability, shopping at our UPS Stores, utilizing our services through Didlake Document Imaging, or Didlake Photo Imaging, or donating to us through AmazonSmile when you’re shopping on Amazon already.
Jennifer: Wow, wonderful. Thank you so much. This has been a fascinating conversation. I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you and knowing how amazing grad has contributed back, and just the wonderful information you’ve shared with us for National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Thanks so much, Erika.
Erika: Oh, Jennifer, thank you so much, and “Go Mason.”