Family: Husband Chieng, sons Metthew and Jacob
Occupation: Day Program Manager, Goodwill Industries of Northwest North Carolina
Tell us about your career with Goodwill.
I started with Goodwill in 2009 as an employment specialist/job coach. I then worked as a WIA (Workforce Investment Act) case manager to help people who were displaced or laid off get back to work or back into school to gain new employment or trade skills. I then became a program manager for the day program at our Conover Workforce Development Center.
Did you grow up in Catawba County?
I grew up in Hildebran then moved to Claremont. My parents moved here when I was in third grade. We first lived in Burke County, Drexel and Hildebran. My parents came here from California to work and to provide their kids with a better opportunity. So North Carolina’s home to me. I went to Bunker Hill High School, and then I went to East Carolina University in Greenville.
What did you study?
At first, it was nursing because I wanted to help people. But biology is just not my thing, nor is chemistry. I didn't know that until I got there. So I changed my major. I asked my advisor, "I just want to help people. What can I do to help people?" She said, "It just depends on how you want to help, because in every job you help somebody. You help by doing something. That's what jobs are." She helped narrow it down for me, and I got my degree in Child Development and Family Relations with a concentration in Family and Community Services. I learned about community support, nonprofit agencies, mental health programs, developmental disability programs, and substance abuse programs.
I did my internship with a local business named NOACIN. What that means is “Never Overlooking A Child In Need.” We worked with children who had either mental health or developmental disabilities. We did a lot of community inclusion, working on goals, helping them get through the day and issues that they may have, things like that. When I graduated college, NOACIN hired me as their billing and accreditation specialist. I worked with the staff and participants in their programs to ensure that we were billing for appropriate services. About a year after I started, they opened a group home and I became the interim group home manager to 3-4 at risk teenage girls.
What brought you back to Catawba County?
Some family members were having health issues, and I was coming home almost every other weekend to help so I decided to move back home to make things easier on me. I didn’t know what Catawba County had in for me and my field of work, I applied to many places. I knew someone who was working for Goodwill and I got insight on the Employment Specialist Job Coaching job. This job required flexibility and willingness to do just about anything. So fresh out of college, I thought, “Well, I'll try it.” I got hired on in 2009, and I came back home.
What was that first job with Goodwill like?
I learned that if you can get trained in something, you can really do anything. I worked with people who had all kinds of disabilities, either mental, physical or developmental, and helped them find jobs. I would go in and learn their job, then I would teach them exactly how to do it and how to modify it for their needs.
Job coaching involves a wide realm of jobs. I stocked at Walmart. I made pizzas at Chuck E. Cheese. I cleaned a lot of toilets. I even bordered socks and did production line work. I worked at Sonic – I put on roller skates and taught my client how to roller skate and deliver food on skates.
One of my clients made pizzas at Chuck E. Cheese. They have a specific way of making pizzas, and he was having a hard time following their steps. I put pictures at certain spots so he’d know what to do and which buttons to press on the machines. For other clients, I might color code certain things. If they’re cleaning bathrooms, that could help them tell the difference between which bottle is bleach and which one’s not.
A lot of times, I would go in a few days early. I talked to the managers and other co-workers, and I learned everything first before taking my client there. Other times, I would just go in with my client on the first day and modify things as we went along to help them understand exactly what to do.
It seems that helping people has been a real driving passion for you. Do you see that through what you've been doing at Goodwill?
I have. As I was learning to job coach, I also had to do a lot of networking. I made cold calls to business, visited businesses, attended network opportunities in the county, joined groups and worked alongside various agencies. One of the things I did was attended leads meetings with the Chamber, because I was trying to get leads on jobs for my clients and share with our community what Goodwill does. This was an eye opener and I just loved that so many people would get together like that early in the morning to talk about what's new going on in the community. It made me realize there are a lot of people who are willing to get together to help each other out and make things successful here in our community. It could have been as simple as making a sign for someone, getting a contact for a reliable contractor, connecting one company with another for insurance or simply helping someone find a job. It’s people helping people, and it takes a community. I was there looking for jobs for my people, and a lot of times they didn't know who my people were. As I got to know them, they would think about it a little bit more and then I’d hear, "Oh you know what? I have this job that maybe they can do."
You were obviously helping your clients, but you were also helping the community by helping fill a job. You helped people look outside the box when they're thinking about companies or jobs they could connect people with. Every role I have been with at Goodwill has really made me feel like I'm helping somebody, not just somebody but a community as well.
Tell us more about the job you’re doing today.
This is a day program where adults with intellectual and development disabilities gain skills to be more independent and become employable. It’s really fun to work with them, every day is always a new day. Every single one of them, if you ask what they actually want to do, they will tell you, “I want to find a job and work.”
We work on independent living skills, which is important to all of them because most of them live at home or in group homes. For those who live at home with guardians or parents, they are facing the fact that their parents are aging and they need to be able to continue to care for themselves. The independent living skills training helps make sure they can do what they need to do to help themselves.
We also help them learn to advocate for themselves. We make them aware of voting. We talk about the different agencies that can provide resources to them, and how to access them.
We do a lot of community inclusion through community outings. This is probably the biggest piece, because it involves everything – work skills, social skills, independent living skills. Just being out at the mall, the theater, or Walmart teaches them a lot of those things. Things as simple as shopping at the farmers market teaches them about the ability of growing their own food, money managements skills, social skills, safety awareness, and work skills such as following directions, reading, counting and recognizing quality. Sometimes we just drive around town so they can be familiar with what’s in the community so they’ll know where to access resources if needed such as recognizing the fire station or a hospital. We also teach them about how to make sure they’re safe in case anything happens while they’re out, like looking for signs, exits, and things like that.
One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed this year is that when we used to go out, some of our participants would look back to make sure a staff person was always nearby. Now I see them, and they’re not looking back anymore. They're okay to separate from the group, go somewhere, and then come back. You don't see that fear in them that they're going to get lost or have a problem with something or someone. We’ve seen a growth in their independence with our community and the places we go.
You probably see lots of moments when things click for someone. What's that like for you?
That's what we call our ‘Wow’ moments. For example, we have one individual who doesn’t ever start conversations. The group went bowling one day, and when he came back he looked at a staff person and said, "I got a strike." Staff were so surprised that he said something without being prompted and we can feel from him that he was proud and excited about his achievement that day, and we knew that meant something to him. There’s a lot of wow moments. They come and go. But their wow moments are very wow. Those are the moments we love sharing.
You’re of Hmong descent. Tell us about your culture and how you experienced it in Catawba County.
I think even though my parents came here for work, North Carolina reminded them a lot of their home [Laos]. Because of the trees. Because of the mountains. Because of being able to farm and garden. It made them comfortable. And it helped them build their life here for us. Coming here in third grade, I would say I didn't know very much about culture. I was too young to recognize my own culture at that moment. But growing up and seeing more Hmong people come here, I started embracing more of our traditions.
I remember going to the New Year’s celebrations in Caldwell County in Lenoir years ago. That was the place where everybody came to for the New Year, from Rhode Island all the way down to Florida. All the Hmong people on the East Coast came here for our New Year. And they still do. One of the biggest accomplishments the organization that organizes the Hmong New Year here was that they secured a piece of land in Newton for all future New Year celebrations. This organization is made up of the different Hmong community members who donates their time and effort to organize an eventful new year for our southeast region.
The Hmong population here has grown and there is so much to know and learn from our culture and traditions. Within the Hmong community there's so many different traditions. Our clan might do something different from your clan. Or even if we're the same clan, we might do something different because years ago our ancestors changed something about our tradition. Being Hmong, I continue to learn about new things all the time about our culture.
If you could pick a favorite thing about living in Catawba County, what would it be?
I'm not a big city girl. Never liked it. I think this is big enough and easy enough for me to get around, and I just love the fact that I can't get stuck. I hate getting stuck. I can get stopped on Highway 70 with traffic, but I'm not stuck because it’s easy for me to get around the congestion through side roads. And it's just minutes away from big cities, hours away from mountains and coast. It's very central. But I just like the fact that it's so simple to live around here. A simple way of living with so much to do around the county, in all the towns and cities. I just like the simplicity of Catawba County.
Is there anything else you want to share?
I would share that my love of this community has come from working here with Goodwill, through the connections I’ve made and through the different ways they push me to get outside of my box and embrace what the community has to offer our consumers that we serve.
When I was doing job coaching, I only networked to get jobs. And when I started doing case management, I was talking to schools and certification programs. With this program, I talk to all kinds of people such as leaders, stakeholders, elected officials. I have also been given the opportunity to grow in my leadership skills, like attending Leadership Catawba. It has helped me put in full circle what Catawba County has to offer and there is so much more than sometimes what we see on the surface. It showed me how the agencies, businesses, the County and the cities/towns all work toward the same thing. I see so many people come together and want to help the community such as the community college, local businesses and the Chamber collaborating and providing the community with programs to enhance their skills for job opportunities in the community
You never would have predicted you’d end up doing this work. Now that you're here, how do you feel about it?These guys reward you every day with their wow moments or simple happiness they share when they attend this program. And it doesn't matter if it was this position or my WIA position or the Job Coaching position, someone always thanked me for what I did, big or small. Someone always saw the difference it made in somebody else's life. These jobs come with a lot of challenges, but every day it’s rewarded.
Interviewed March 21, 2018