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What meaningful work means to people like Mike

Finding Hope Through Meaningful Work

When Mike Walz retired from his 21-year tenure at Rochester Transit System (RTS) as a computer data analyst and payroll system administrator, his colleagues threw him a surprise party and gave him a certificate to his favorite bookstore. Mike was overwhelmed with joy and appreciation.

Growing up, Mike knew he was different. One of the brightest in school, he was small and wore large glasses because of his poor eyesight. His undiagnosed mental illness compounded by his extreme apprehension in social situations escalated until he eventually dropped out of high school.

Mike’s devoted parents rekindled his desire to learn. They encouraged him to get his GED, and supported him in college. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Ecology and Wildlife Biology, and took additional computer science classes. Worn down by social anxiety, however, he was unable to find and keep steady work.

A string of unfortunate events occurred, which further isolated him. His parents died, he had very little savings, he was incorrectly diagnosed as having schizophrenia, and was told by professionals that he was too sick to work.

Mike recalled that dark period. “I was misdiagnosed, wrongly medicated, unemployed, and struggling with depression,” said Mike. “I felt I was worth nothing, and I had no hope.”

Few know that mental illness is one of the main reasons for unemployment, and yet work holds tremendous value to someone who lives with mental illness. According to government statistics, overall unemployment is at 9.6 percent. However, for people coping with mental illness and who want to work, it reaches 90 percent.

“Working provides a positive identity and is therapeutic,” said Nyla Gaylord, Employment Connection Director. “We believe in recovery and hope. Work is a large part of recovery.” We teach people how to be successful and we set them up for success through our resources.”

In his early 40’s, Mike reached a turning point. He was diagnosed – correctly - with bipolar illness. With the help of various community groups and resources, he began to reach out and connect socially with others who struggled with mental illness. His counselor from the Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities (VESID) saw Mike’s desire to do more, and referred him to Employment Connection.

“Staff provided the skills assessment, interview training, and reinforcement I needed,” said Mike. “I went to RTS for my data entry job interview with my job coach. The human resources director was very understanding and willing to give me a chance.”

Because of the excellent job coaching services at Employment Connection, RTS hired Mike. A job coach generally provides assistance and support for people with disabilities both on and off the job site. Mike’s job coach, visited him at work, checked in with his manager, offered advice and counsel as to what was and wasn’t socially acceptable.

Job coach Laverne Bates who knows Mike and has assisted him said, “I admire Mike’s persistence in being responsible. He was willing to reach out to Employment Connection staff for help when needed.” That support has been an important part of his success on the job.

Throughout his affiliation with Employment Connection, Mike has been instrumental in providing feedback to Employment Connection Director, Nyla Gaylord who appreciates his insights on issues, and how they might impact job seekers.

These days Mike meets up with RTS friends, visits area art galleries, reads philosophy, enjoys live theater (especially GEVA) and writes computer code – just for fun. He continues to volunteer his time teaching disability awareness courses to drivers at RTS.

Through meaningful work Mike has achieved a full and independent life.

To learn more about Employment Connection or list a job opening with us, please call us at 585.263.2690 ext. 109, or visit


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