Now 58, Jane Repas had been unemployed for three years when her career placement counselor told her about the BEST internship program at Healthcare Employees Federal Credit Union ($87.8M, Princeton, NJ).
The Building Economic Strength Together internship is a collaborative project to connect New Jersey credit unions with people with disabilities — a widely underbanked demographic. The program was developed out of a partnership between the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions, the National Disability Institute, and Allies Inc., a training group based in New Jersey.
The program was a two-year pilot starting in 2010, consisting of seven cycles of six-week internships. Credit unions in New Jersey hired interns from all age ranges and with both physical and mental disabilities. Interns were paid by the Kessler Foundation, a public charity dedicated to improving life for people with disabilities.
Repas applied and started her internship with the credit union on Jan. 7 two decades after being diagnosed with depression, then attention deficit disorder.
Repas started her career as a computer programmer, where she said found it hard to concentrate on a computer screen. In 2002 she was laid off, and then landed another position and was laid off again in 2008.
Jane Repas, 58, joined Healthcare Employees FCU through an internship.
“The combination [of my disabilities and] of waiting for the job market to get better and just getting worse over the last 10 years,” says Repas of her deepening depression. “It just builds on each other.”
Repas worked at several part-time jobs, switching often to keep variety, which she says is a product of ADD, until she started the BEST internship through Healthcare Employees. The internship ended in March and then Repas was hired on at the credit union part-time.
“We definitely had a staffing need and [Repas] learned so quickly,” says Jennifer Seder, director of marketing and business development at Healthcare Employees.
Plus the credit union gave Repas the variety she needed in a workplace. During the internship Repas worked in several areas of the cooperative financial institution, including lending, business development, marketing, and member services. Repas is a part-time client services representative, working about 20 hours a week with both member services and the loan department.
“It was a matter of getting more confident,” says Repas, who credits Healthcare Employees’ friendly staff for helping her gently transition back into the workforce. “It’s sometimes hard, especially with my disability, getting used to getting up in the morning and going to work every day. It can be pretty daunting.”
Seder was able to work with Repas, and the other interns to create great experiences and lasting relationships for both parties. Healthcare Employees participated in six of the seven BEST cycles.
“We were excited about the program because it was an opportunity for us to learn about an underbanked demographic,” says Seder. “It was mutually beneficial for both the credit union and the intern.”
Despite not being able to calculate the data on increased growth because of the program, Seder says the credit union received significant press coverage about BEST. For the individuals with disabilities, the internship provided them with new skills sets and work experience, plus experience working with a team.
“Our involvement in the BEST Intern Program has been a truly rewarding experience,” says Seder. “It has allowed us an opportunity to explore ways to understand the needs of the disability community … while at the same time providing a hands-on approach for our interns to learn about the credit union industry from the inside out.”
Although BEST internship program pilot ended this year, many of the New Jersey credit unions that participated are looking for ways to keep the connection between the cooperative financial institutions and the disabled community alive. Plus, the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions is looking for ways to expand the program nationally, looking to partner with New York and other states on the West Coast and in the South.
The Credit Union of New Jersey ($313.1M, Ewing, NJ) and First Financial Federal Credit Union ($190.8M, Wall, NJ) also participated in two cycles of the internship program. Seder, as well as Patti Fisk, vice president of human resources at Credit Union of New Jersey and Helga Britton, vice president of human resources at First Financial, say credit unions can garner several best practices from the program.
They offer these five tips for participating in a program that connects with the disabled community:
Focus on the individual’s ability, not their disability. Let an individual’s work speak for itself. A disability does not and should not impede someone from being a valued employee.
Offer substantial training and support. Success will follow if you take the time to train up front. Customize their experience to what they would like to gain. Plus, credit unions can partner with other employers to provide programs and services to its interns or members with disabilities.
Expose areas that may have been overlooked. Be flexible not only with intern’s physical capacities but also with their mental capacities. For example, Healthcare Employees rearranged the photo copier to allow for wheelchair access. In the end the staff liked the new set up better because it opened up the entire hallway area.
Provide learning experiences for both the intern and the credit union employees. Using interns in a number of departments helps the credit union determine where the interns strengths are, while giving the intern a broader skills set.
Give interns opportunities to be creative and contribute. Learn something new from each intern that is placed with your credit union. In 2010, an intern with the Credit Union of New Jersey developed the concept to create a special logo for the institutions 75th anniversary. And the credit union indeed used a unique logo throughout 2011.