It’s Never Too Late: Kathy Johnson’s Story

Photographs by Dale Small for Wichita State University and the YMCA.

Kathy Johnson is defining her path to independence and employment.

Kathy became a client of CPRF’s Work Incentives Planning and Assistance (WIPA) Program in 2016 while working part-time at a local thrift store. Though she had a job, it didn’t quite feel like her employment journey was complete. Kathy wanted a career.

The problem is that disability employment is not a linear journey. When Kathy initially became a WIPA client, she feared that she would lose her disability benefits before she was established enough to fully support herself.

“We don’t want people to get a job and lose the cash benefit before they have enough income to support themselves,” explained Margaret Knoff, Community Work Incentives Coordinator. “In Kathy’s case, she was only working a part time job at minimum wage.  She used that job income to start the PASS savings so she could go to school to support herself and let go of the cash benefit.”

With Margaret’s guidance, Kathy learned about various work incentive options, and her anxieties about the unknown and what could happen to her disability benefits began to dissipate. After careful thought, she decided to pursue a degree in social work.

“I always had this gnawing in the pit of my stomach, because I did not finish college. It was a cause of shame for me that I never told anyone about. When I expressed this to Margaret Knoff and she told me about the PASS program, I was elated… I never knew there was a program like this that helps disabled people like me to get training, so that we can get jobs that will allow us to live above the poverty level.”

Writing a Plan for Achieving Self Support (PASS) was instrumental in making this possible.

How Pass Works

PASS is designed for clients with a clear work objective in mind, the ability to outline a plan to achieve their goal, and the willingness to thoroughly track budgets.

While using PASS, Kathy has to balance and track expenses for her monthly income in a separate savings account from her Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Her PASS savings account pays for items or services she has listed that support her vocational outcome (tuition, school supplies, certification testing, etc), while her SSI and other income goes toward her living expenses (rent, utilities, etc.).

Taking the Leap

Returning to college as an adult was daunting, but Kathy has made it a point to create a series of opportunities and connections for herself. She was able to network with students through a First Generational College Students (Ad Adstra) conference, has worked in Trio Student Support Services, and was accepted into the National Society of Leadership and Success. At her induction, Kathy was honored with an Excellence in Service to Students award. Most recently, she was even asked to be the President of the First-Generation Student Organization on campus.

“I am a firm believer that being involved with what is happening on campus, is the glue that helps keep me striving for my degree. Today students just come up to me and hug me and it seems like I know everybody. It is the most amazing experience I have ever had in my life.”

Paying It Forward

Kathy’s driving force to be a social worker stems from the personal impact social work has had on her life. Because of her own life experiences, Kathy believes she will be able to connect with and advocate for her clients – she knows the value of having someone in your corner.

“I was motivated by the wonderful social workers I have had in my life and my need to give back to the community…plus, I have been in need so many times throughout my life. I have suffered through all types of abuse, alcohol and drug addiction, and mental illness. Today, I feel that my experiences in life have equipped me to help others. My desire is to help others help themselves…”

What’s Next

Kathy is on track to graduate in May 2020. Once her PASS concludes, her search for work will begin. Once employed, Kathy will go through a trial period that allows her to retain her disability benefits while earning income from her new job. She has already established a professional connection by volunteering at the Veterans Administration Hospital and hopes that she will be able to begin her career there.

“I have a special interest in helping veterans, because my father retired from the Army after 30 years of service and I consider it an honor to serve the people who serve our country and would lay down their lives for our freedom.”

Some Advice

Kathy’s advice to anyone with a disability that wants to pursue a career:

“I know it might sound cliché, but it is never too late to achieve your dreams… going back to college or trade school can open doors for us in the future and enable us to become self-sufficient. Plus, the journey is just so worth it! Every day you will find another level of strength, another level of determination, and another level of hope. We no longer have to accept the stigma that society has placed upon us and we certainly don’t have to embrace the stigma that we put on ourselves.”