Catherine, who works as a Mail Clerk for Didlake at the Department of Energy (DOE) – Forrestal Building in Washington, D.C., recently shared her employment journey with members of Congress while participating in SourceAmerica’s Grassroots Advocacy Conference.
For this annual event, SourceAmerica brings together nonprofit agency leaders and people with disabilities to raise awareness of the federal AbilityOne® Program and disability employment-related issues. Catherine was among 50 self-advocates selected from across the nation to participate in this year’s event, which was held virtually for the first time, April 26-30.
Catherine, a Didlake employee for nearly 15 years, shared her story with 10 senators and representatives – or their legislative aides – from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. She also presented on a virtual stage to fellow advocates and nonprofit agency staff during the Celebration of Stories, the conference finale.
“When I first started working at DOE, I had many doubts about whether I could be successful in learning a new skill that I needed for this position. I had previously found it hard to find a suitable job and be able to support myself,” Catherine said. “Working with Didlake allowed me to build my self-confidence with the support of my job coach, my family and friends. Now I earn a salary and have developed leadership skills so that I can train and guide other co-workers. My future goal one day is to be promoted to a position with some supervisory responsibilities.”
Rachel Payne, Didlake’s Vice President of Advocacy and Public Policy, joined Catherine for the event and brought her own message to Capitol Hill: “Our employees never cease to amaze us, but if there was ever a time to do so, during this pandemic, they have really shown up. They have showed everyone in our entire country what they are able to do – they are hard-working; they follow safety protocols; and they’ve been integral in keeping the country running.”
SourceAmerica staff members echoed that sentiment and requested that members co-sponsor or support House Resolution 159. Sponsored by Joseph Morelle, D-N.Y., and introduced on Feb. 24, this resolution expresses appreciation and support for essential employees with disabilities during the current pandemic and beyond. Conference participants also asked members to include a 1.5 percent AbilityOne procurement goal in the National Defense Authorization Act.
Didlake is a top producer in the AbilityOne Program, providing business solutions for federal customers and employing hundreds of people with disabilities across more than 30 federal contracts. Didlake participates in AbilityOne as a SourceAmerica-affiliated nonprofit agency provider of employment opportunities for people who have significant disabilities.
Catherine’s Journey to Didlake and DOE
Before securing a job with Didlake, Catherine was unemployed for six months, at a time when the U.S. was headed into a recession.
“Those were a long six months of not having any work to go to and relying on my parents, which was pretty stressful. It was a really hard time. It took a lot of patience and effort to find something that would click for me. Before Didlake, we [Catherine and her parents] were constantly hitting a brick wall,” said Catherine, who was referred to Didlake by the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services.
Catherine joined the Didlake team in 2007. Initially hired to work in Didlake’s copy center at DOE, Catherine joined the DOE mailroom staff in November 2009. Didlake has operated the DOE mail center since 1998. The contract employs more than 100 people with significant disabilities at DOE’s Forrestal and Germantown facilities.
A Typical Workday
As a mail clerk, Catherine starts her workday sorting mail by type and level of importance – time-sensitive, first-class, interoffice, bulk, etc. She concludes her workday by tidying up the mail and storage rooms. In between, she performs two mail runs throughout DOE, delivering mail in order of importance and collecting outgoing mail to keep the cycle going. Catherine also quality checks assigned boxes of mail for accurate count and recipient names.
“I really enjoy my job because I get to interact with different people in the building twice a day when I deliver and pick up the mail. I have become good friends with some of the people on my mail route. I also really enjoy good relationships with my co-workers,” Catherine said.
Always willing to help out, Catherine and her colleagues assist with special projects, such as stuffing and sealing envelopes for large mailings, or distributing office supplies throughout the building.
“We keep ourselves very busy. If we have extra time, we work together to study material we’re supposed to learn and quiz each other. If I know how to do something really well, I try to make sure someone else also knows how to do it well… I am very detail-oriented and have a great memory, so helping others I work with is good and makes me feel good.”
When she’s not working, Catherine enjoys going out to eat with her husband, Gordon, who also works as a mail clerk for Didlake at DOE. She also enjoys shopping and going to Starbucks with Gordon and her best friend.
“My husband and I work and live together. Some might say that is a lot of togetherness. But, for us, that togetherness allows us to help and support each other every day,” Catherine said.
Catherine and Gordon, who are celebrating their third anniversary this month, hope to travel to Charleston, SC, their honeymoon destination, in the near future. They also aspire to travel to London and Italy one day.
For Catherine, who was born and raised in Washington, D.C. and lives in Arlington, Va., the virtual Grassroots Advocacy Conference “destination” was practically in her backyard. Payne initially invited Catherine to attend the conference in 2020, but SourceAmerica canceled it due to the pandemic.
“My favorite part of the conference was hearing other people’s stories. I really enjoyed hearing people from across America tell their stories about how they found jobs where they’ve become successful and have good support – I found it to be very inspiring. It was also quite an opportunity to meet with members,” Catherine said.
For Payne, who is developing a self-advocacy program at Didlake, a highlight of this year’s event was a presentation by two nonprofit agency representatives about the self-advocacy groups they established in their organizations. She also enjoyed the keynote by RJ Mitte, Breaking Bad star and disability advocate. Mitte played Walter “Flynn” White, Jr. from 2008-2013 and, like his show character, has cerebral palsy. Mitte also emceed the Celebration of Stories. Glee actress Lauren Potter, who has Down syndrome, also presented during a session on National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
“It was just amazing for our self-advocates watching the keynote and emcee, who were also people with disabilities, and say, ‘wow, we have opportunities!’” Payne said.
This was Payne’s fourth Grassroots Advocacy Conference and her third time leading Didlake’s participation. “It is one of the things I love the most about the job. It’s so fun to see someone who might be a little nervous or shy, or lack that self-confidence, to be around people and tell everyone about themselves,” she said.
And, for five days, Catherine did just that – she shared her story with everyone at the conference and with her elected leaders. Catherine is unlikely to stop there because she wants everyone to know: “Just because someone might have an intellectual or cognitive disability doesn’t mean they can’t work. They all have abilities and can work. Have patience to help them succeed. Don’t give up on them. Don’t assume they can’t. See us in action – you can see how hard we work.”