Agency puts people with mental illness to work

Thresholds, Chicago's largest mental health agency, is hoping the new year will be better.

People with mental illness who work have more self-esteem and create relationships that speed their recovery. Thresholds' employees who work at Banana Republic are good examples.

Fifty-four-year-old Wanda Johnson has been working at Banana Republic for six years.

"I generally work six days a week at Banana, and my hours range from 5 to 10, to 6 to 10, 8 to 10, all the hours," Johnson said. "I like it because it begins in the morning, and I'm through by the afternoon, and I have the whole rest of the day to do what I want."

Sharon Kotz is another Banana Republic employee. She just started two months ago.

"I steam clothes, steam shirts and dresses," Kotz said. "Monday through Friday, 7 to 11:30."

Both feel lucky to have the job, especially knowing that only 15 percent of people with mental illness are employed.

Ron Grais, member of Thresholds' board of directors, says that employers often fear the unknown.

"It's a concern of how do we do this, what's the right thing to do," said Grais. "Cause there's a lot of people, who when you tell them how they can help they do, and what Thresholds does is provide the interface between the employer and our members so we help the members do the best job and we help the employers when they have questions and issues."

Nancy Brades is Banana Republic's community project liaison. She also helps Thresholds members find employment.

"I had a family member who suffered from bi-polar disease and had done some volunteering with Thresholds, so 10 1/2 years ago we spoke to him about the opportunity about hiring their memberships and the relationship has blossomed so much. So at any given point we've had as many as 36 Thresholds members working throughout a lot of our stores in the Chicago area," said Brades.

"Our employers generally find that some of their best employees are Thresholds members," Grais said. "They have a level of loyally that is unmatched and their really devoted to doing the best possible job."

Seeing the success with Banana Republic and other employers, Thresholds has started a new supported employment program.

"We're going to place people in situation that are attractive to them and in the area that they want to work, and then we're going to train them, so we need more job coaches. We need to involve more people in that function," said Grais.

Thresholds hopes that with supported employment program, 60 percent of people with mental illness will have jobs.

For more, call Thresholds at (773) 572-5218 or visit there website,

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