Bradley Ramirez

The month of March is the signal of change and new beginnings. The temperature begins to rise just enough to tempt us with Spring, grass begins to turn green and the sounds of birds singing fills the sky. For 37-year-old Bradley Ramirez, a customer of Illinois Department of Human Services, Division of Rehabilitation Services (DHS-DRS) and resident of Park Lawn, March can mean only one thing - baseball is just around the corner. "I love going to the ballpark and watching the Thunderbolts and the Chicago White Sox."

In fact, last October Bradley was asked to be the honorary guest to say, "Play Ball," at a Chicago White Sox game. "It was really cool," says Bradley. "They treated me like a VIP and it was also during National Disability Employment Awareness Month."

While change can bring about warmer weather and opportunities for enjoyable activities, it can also bring challenges and uncertainties, of which Bradley has had his fair share. But how he has responded to change and adversity throughout his life has been nothing short of spectacular.

Bradley grew up in the Chicago suburb of Blue Island with his mother, father and sister and then moved to Crestwood where he attended school and received special education services.

While in high school, Bradley found out about a vocational exploration program offered through the Illinois Department of Human Services, Division of Rehabilitation Services. The program, called the Secondary Transitional Experience Program, or STEP, provides opportunities for students in high school to gain pre-employment skills that prepare them as they transition into life after high school.

Bradley obtained his first job through STEP working at Jewel Osco in Palos Heights, Il. To say Bradley was a dedicated employee would be an understatement as he worked for Jewel for 14 years as a grocery bagger before deciding he would like to explore other options.

With positive change also came heartbreaking change through the loss of his mother, who passed away from Leukemia. For the first time, Bradley was living alone and experiencing the uncertainty of what his future held.

It was at this point that his sister began to help him look for a supported environment where Bradley could receive vocational, social, and independence assistance that would provide him purpose and opportunity. That's when they found Park Lawn. Says Bradley, "my sister took me to a few different agencies, but Park Lawn was the one that had an opening, so we took it".

Bradley moved into a Community Integrated Living Arrangement (CILA), and soon after began receiving employment services under a special certificate provided through the Department of Labor called a 14-c certificate. Residents are allowed to work together at the Park Lawn facility completing contract work, however are paid a sub-minimum wage. This employment is sometimes referred to as sub-minimum wage or sheltered employment.

While Bradley liked working and being around the other residents, he missed working in the community and shared that interest with staff. Bradley began some volunteer experiences as a receptionist through the supports of the Division of Developmental Disabilities. Shortly after these services began, another drastic change happened - the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, the residents of Park Lawn were forced to quarantine in their homes instead of participating in their structured daily routines.

It was during this time that Bradley turned a crisis into an opportunity. Says Bradley, "I was sitting in the sunroom at the CILA home and decided, why not write a book to keep myself busy? So, it just popped in my head to write a kid storybook called, "It's My Life." The book is based on what job a child wanted to do when they grew up. It took me about 7 days to write it and 4 days to draw it."

What comes next is selflessness personified. Bradley had the idea to sell the book and raise money to go toward paying for different community outings for himself and the rest of the residents of Park Lawn. "One of my family members helped me put it together and then we made it available electronically. People would let me know they wanted it, and I would email it to them. I would say I sold about 100 copies and passed my goal."

When residents finally began to return to Park Lawn Community Day Services, they were introduced to a Counselor from (IDHS-DRS). The counselor spoke to them about career opportunities working in the community making at least minimum wage, also known as Competitive Integrated Employment. Bradley discussed an interest and was referred to IDHS-DRS for services.

Bradley was connected to Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor Raquel Vasquez Del Real. Raquel met with Bradley, got to know more about him, and then worked in partnership with Park Lawn to help support him with community employment options. Says Raquel, "Bradley is always so nice to work with. He always has such a big smile and is in such a good mood. He makes me happy!"

Bradley used the work skills he acquired working as a receptionist and at Jewel Osco to interview with different libraries and movie theatres, but unfortunately was unable to obtain employment. But he always kept his focus and wasn't deterred. Matt Polson, Director of Community Day Services for Park Lawn spoke to Bradley's character by saying, "Rejection is never easy to take, but Bradley just took it in stride. He would just move on to the next opportunity and say when the right job fell in his lap, he would take it!"

It didn't take long before the right opportunity came along through the Chicago Ridge, Il. Park District. Says Bradley, "we heard about an opening through the Chicago Ridge Park District doing grounds maintenance and they got me in right on the spot!" Bradley began to receive initial instructions and support from a job coach. The coach helped him understand how to complete his tasks in a timely manner with minimal error. As time went on the job coach supports faded. Currently, he only meets with them about one time per week.

Bradley enjoys the routine his job provides as well as the connection with others. Says Bradley, "I usually do maintenance around the park, I pick up trash, wipe down the machines in the fitness rooms and clean off the paths. I've been there now about a year. I see a lot of the same people and they recognize me. Many of the residents at Park Lawn go there also so they tell me how their days are going."

Bradley's supervisors, Jen Grabowski and Paul Ruppert, also speak very highly of his work and attitude. Says Jen, "Bradley comes to work every day with a positive attitude and a smile. He takes his job seriously but always finds time to laugh with us. We are lucky to have Bradley on our team!"

His effort and attitude have surely paid off, as just recently Bradley was honored by his supervisors as Employee of the Month! Says Bradley, "I want to keep working with the Chicago Ridge Park District and maybe move into upper management."

While the change from sub-minimum wage work to competitive integrated employment may have presented some challenges for Bradley, his advice to others is to do the same, stating, "My advice for individuals who want to look for jobs is do as much interviewing as you can, fill out as many applications as you can, have a person with you that can help with questions, and if you get the job then go for it! Play ball!"

And Bradley isn't done playing ball yet, as he has plans to explore writing a second book in the summer of 2023.

DHS's Division of Rehabilitation Services is the state's lead agency serving individuals with disabilities. DRS works in partnership with people with disabilities and their families to assist them in making informed choices to achieve full community participation through employment, education, and independent living opportunities.

To learn more, call 1-877-761-9780 Voice, 1-866-264-2149 TTY, (312) 957-4881 VP, read about DRS Services, or Apply Online.