Spend 30 seconds with Aimee Rogers, and you’ll learn the one thing she’s passionate about.
“Anybody who wants to work should be able to find something they can do, and find an employer who matches that person’s unique abilities,” the BlueCross support coordinator and certified rehabilitation counselor says.
That passion led to a career helping Tennesseans with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Working in the Employment and Community First (ECF) CHOICES program, Aimee’s members set and pursue their own goals for employment and independent living. She also helps them become involved in the community, make friends, be active, and get what they need to stay healthy.
Each member faces challenges — whether it’s communication, meeting and feeling comfortable around people who aren’t immediate family, completing daily living tasks or getting a job and living independently. But Aimee doesn’t just see their challenges; she sees their potential.
“As a society, we tend to bubble-wrap people,” she says. “We’re so afraid that a vulnerable person will be taken advantage of in some way, we take away all the risks in their life. On top of that, we isolate them with people who have similar conditions.”
“If you think about it, you risk your life every time you walk outside. Anything can happen to any of us. By not taking risks, I saw people whose lives were stagnant and who didn’t know how to take the first step forward.”
The Cincinnati native found her way to Chattanooga after graduating from The University of the South – Sewanee in 2005. She went on to earn her master’s degree in Special Education from Auburn University in 2015 while working full-time in the vocational rehabilitation field.
While she found putting people in jobs extremely rewarding, she saw the need to go a step further. Many people she assisted could not get a driver’s license and had limited options for actually getting work once they found a job. Others didn’t see a doctor regularly or get counseling. Some needed help managing their medication.
“I’ve seen firsthand how these members didn’t have the supports we all take for granted, like rides to work, health care or counseling when they needed it,” she says. “Helping others gain independence requires a holistic approach.”
Completing the puzzle
Aimee found a means to help people on a larger scale through ECF CHOICES, a program she’s been with since its inception in 2016.
“At first, I had a very broad overview of what ECF CHOICES was going to be,” she says. “After learning about the program’s focus on long-term supports for members to accomplish not only employment, but independent living, health, wellness, I thought, ‘This makes sense for me.’ People don’t realize how much work matters, and how much it affects our health.”
Today she serves more than 50 program members. When she began working with them, many didn’t even know they could pursue independence.
Three years in, Aimee spends a lot of time on the road, meeting her members in their homes. Though most of her members live in the greater Chattanooga area, she travels to Athens and Cleveland. The number of visits varies, depending on each member’s level of need, but face-to-face interaction is vital.
“Those interactions keep our relationships strong,” Aimee says. “Part of the benefit of a support coordinator is having that go-to person for fixing things or discussing issues and challenges that come up.”
“Before I leave each visit, we agree on a plan and expectations, and everyone is clear on their next steps.”
Depending on the member and the need, Aimee typically asks current program participants questions like:
- Since our last visit or conversation, what challenges have you run into?
- What are some positive things that have happened?
- What have you learned about your abilities?
- How are you feeling about working, or how’s your job going?
- What’s something fun you did recently in the community?
Building community among ECF CHOICES members
At a recent ECF CHOICES community forum in Athens, TN, Aimee’s members got the opportunity to meet and talk about what the program has done for them. They also shared Aimee’s impact on their lives. Here’s what some of them had to say.
“Aimee’s a wonderful person,” says Nick, a golf course employee with his own apartment. “She helped me get a job, because I wasn’t doing much with my life, which really needed to change for the better. I’m much happier now that I’m working and not staying home playing video games.”
Aimee chimes in, “Nick had a goal to live by himself, and he’s been able to work through some of the typical growing pains that accompany getting your first place.”
Nick, who has a mild intellectual disability, works with multiple providers to get support for all of his needs. This includes working with:
- Community Integration, ensuring he isn’t stuck at home on his days off and he and his support specialist can do fun things he chooses
- Independent Living,helping maintain the cleanliness of his home
- Job Coaching,Transportationand Stabilization, getting him to and from work and providing a communication channel for his supervisor if Nick needs additional support services
“This is where ECF CHOICES services help those who can work be as successful as possible,” Aimee says. “The approach is individually centered on Nick’s needs and goals, and allows him autonomy.”
“Things are working better now, thanks to Aimee,” Nick says, quickly adding, “It’s Aimee, it’s me, it’s the whole program and the people in it.”
Matt has worked with Aimee for the last nine months, following a move to Cleveland from Knoxville. It was a difficult restart at first, as he had to leave a behind a hospital job he loved — a job he’d found as a graduate of the Project SEARCH program, which gives high-functioning young adults with intellectual or learning disabilities the opportunity to develop skills to seek employment. Matt had anxiety about meeting new people and finding work, but Aimee helped with both.
Matt recently started a job at Lowe’s in the lawn and garden department. He spoke on the ECF CHOICES forum panel alongside Aimee and Nick.
“I really appreciate what Aimee does,” Matt says. “She’s very respectful and supportive, and she’s always there if I need something. She encouraged me to go for this new job.”
“There was never a doubt that Matt would accomplish these goals, because he is charismatic and self-motivated to be successful,” Aimee says. “All I had to do was help connect him with the right support network.”
Zora’s daughter Natalie has been working with Aimee since November 2016. When Zora heard about ECF CHOICES, she couldn’t help but be skeptical.
“I got this letter that said BlueCross had this program going — ‘Yeah, sure, I’ve been in those programs,’” Zora recalls. “Well, we got a second letter, and I thought, ‘What the heck.’ So I called. I got Aimee.”
“They welcome me like family now,” Aimee says with a laugh. “Two years ago we helped the Salvadors hire a person from their church to work with Natalie, which is when we started seeing her abilities progress.”
Through many months of volunteering, Zora started to see the possibility of Natalie, who has a moderate intellectual disability, being able to get a part time job. They agreed to work with vocational rehabilitation.
Aimee adds, “Working with Natalie and Zora has been a really great experience. It’s inspiring to find hope in even the littlest thing, and in this field, you have to learn to sometimes take success at a smaller scale. With Natalie, one thing we did was get her to start writing her name again.”
Zora agrees. “Everything is baby steps, and then somewhere down the line you get to run. But you would not believe the difference in Natalie in two years. You just would not.”
Natalie’s growth led to starting a job at Goodwill in May. She works three days a week for three hours each day, on her own.
“I always saw this as a step we would get to, but when Mrs. Salvador told me she was actually dropping Natalie off to work by herself, I was really taken by that,” Aimee says. “Natalie progressed from writing her name again, to doing her own chores, to volunteering, to starting a job. This is how ECF CHOICES differs from other programs. Our services work with other agencies to ensure the member’s goals are progressing.”
A collaborative effort
In Aimee’s line of work, it’s important to have expectations of her members, no matter what they may be.
“Sometimes I know I can see potential that is invisible to others, but that’s why I am in this job,” Aimee says.
When Aimee meets new members, she encourages them to trust the program. That can prove difficult if they feel other systems have let them down.
“I help them see how we can be different,” Aimee says. “ECF CHOICES meets members where they are right now, and grow from that. My members are examples of how the program’s unique approach can be successful. Whether we work with BlueCare, vocational rehabilitation or community resources, we find the right support network for each person’s needs.”
Meeting those needs means lots of gas in the tank, as Aimee recently found herself traveling for 25 member visits in one month. But she also finds time for herself. She’s a fantasy football fanatic and enjoys taking her dogs, Tegan and Nicky, to the park. She also has ambitious plans to visit every North American national park at some point.
“I don’t have a deadline for myself, but I’ve seen quite a few,” she says. “I’m very dorky — I have park posters on my office wall and scratch off where I’ve visited. My favorites so far are Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies and Banff National Park in Alberta.”
Even with that bucket list, Aimee’s greatest reward is seeing her members defy expectations.
“If I’m doing a good job, my members shouldn’t even notice me doing it,” she says. “They’re just taking risks and living their lives.”