When Jaime Veliz reflects on his journey to the present, he modestly understates struggles. His story begins in Guatamala, which was embroiled in a devastating civil war that crippled the economy. In 1991 a missionary friend helped the teenage Veliz leave a bleak situation by coming to Minnesota. His transition to a new climate and language was “hard,” but Veliz relished the learning opportunities at Chaska High School and looked forward to a promising future.
After graduation he landed his first job in a small, privately owned grocery store. Although he distinguished himself as a reliable worker, Veliz questioned if he had reached his potential. Veliz used a wheelchair for mobility, which accommodated his work in the grocery store. But finding a more challenging job in a new workplace seemed unimaginable.
Advocates perceived Veliz differently. Jody Barringer, MRCI WorkSource job coach, who case managed his vocational support, saw untapped potential. Veliz had impressive soft skills, characteristics that appeal to employers: strong work ethic, eagerness to learn, teamwork, attitude, customer focus and a keen sense of humor. Veliz was well positioned to take on a new challenge. When a new job opportunity came up at Waytek in Chanhassen, Barringer knew that she had the perfect candidate for a new job opening at Waytek, a busy Chanhassen distribution center of electrical wiring supplies.
When he met Tim Mark, Waytek’s warehouse manager, Veliz looked at the floor and hung back shyly in the office doorway.
“I was worried about being accepted,” said Veliz. Working in a wheelchair when surrounded by towering racks, humming machines, and busy warehouse workers was overwhelming. “You can do this,” Barringer emphasized. Mark agreed, “I didn’t pity him. I saw untapped abilities.” So he asked Veliz to give it a try, knowing that the family-owned company would support the job initiative.
Two years after starting his work, Mark has seen a remarkable growth in Veliz. “He is part of our team … passionate, loyal, and quality driven,” Mark said.
Now self-confident, Veliz attends company safety meetings and trainings, and he participates in company cookouts and celebrations.
“I like to talk now,” Veliz admits.
Friendly co-workers frequently greet and tease a beaming Veliz. He throws back his own playful barbs especially when they challenge his beloved Twins or Vikings.
Waytek considers its workers to be family. When Veliz needed to replace his aging wheelchair, Waytek launched a campaign to pay for it, matching employee contributions. Co-workers gladly contributed, knowing how much it would increase the quality of life for Veliz. Each day they see their valued team member purposefully zipping through the warehouse. His exuberance for work raises employee morale.
Mark emphasizes that they are not patronizing Veliz, who plays a critical role in product workflow. Waytek prides itself with its quick fulfillment: same day order shipment. Mark drops off daily work orders for different size tubing. Veliz works efficiently in his adapted work station to operate a wire tubing loom. Veliz programs and operates the loom pulling machine. Flexible tubing snakes its way from a Gaylord container through the measuring loom and into a product box that he has assembled. He cuts and tapes the tubing, then seals, labels, and stacks the boxes. Waytek ships out up to 20,000 feet of such tubing each day and Veliz is happy to do his part. “I just get it done,” reflects a satisfied Veliz.
Waytek employs other workers with disabilities having a variety of skillsets. Mark recommends this practice to other businesses. “If an employer has repetitive tasks that can be contracted out, like kitting or cleaning, they should think outside the box without fear.”
There are many Minnesota nonprofit programs like MRCI WorkSource that assist workers with challenges like Veliz with training and placement support.
Having the job at Waytek has deeply impacted Veliz. Stable income has given him the opportunity to have an active social life: attending church events, bowling, shopping, and visiting friends. Topping it off, Veliz married his long time sweetheart in May; the couple now lives happily in Chaska, living the American dream. Veliz is thankful, but humble. “They haven’t gotten rid of me yet,” he says with a grin.
Sixty years ago the Mankato Rehabilitation Center (MRCI) was launched by residents who discovered an unmet need for services to individuals with disabilities. The organization’s original focus was to provide physical therapy, but quickly broadened to vocational services. MRCI WorkSource now offers evaluations, training, and job placement services to adults (and some students) with disabilities or disadvantages. Like Waytek, more than 200 businesses in the Chaska, Fairmont, Mankato, New Ulm, Shakopee, and Rosemount communities partner with MRCI WorkSource. More information is found at www.MRCIWorkSource.org.
Steve Huisken is the business development manager for MRCI WorkSource in Chaska.