Second and sometimes first chances start when people walk through the door at the North Eastern Michigan Rehabilitation Opportunity Center, or NEMROC.
The Alpena-based non-profit was established in 1968 to provide work opportunities for people with disabilities in the community. NEMROC manufactures various wood-based products and vinyl chair mats, employing 135 people.
Ninety percent of the manufacturing workforce at NEMROC has a barrier to employment. In some cases that could mean a mental health disorder such as depression or bipolar disorder. Others might have had difficulties establishing employment because of a past criminal record or lack of training and education. Additionally, workers with developmental disabilities such as autism or cerebral palsy are enthusiastically employed by NEMROC.
Joe Garant is the employee assistance coordinator at NEMROC. He said along with the challenges that come with living with a disability or addiction to drugs or alcohol, many employees struggle with their health. About half smoke cigarettes and many struggle with their weight.
Garant saw an opportunity beyond employment to further change lives. With the help of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation and a $14,000 grant, he started an employee wellness program called Better Next Year in September 2017. The program is made up of group educational sessions focused on smoking cessation, healthy eating and exercise, one-on-one coaching sessions with health mentors and free health club memberships for employees.
The initiative is named after the book Younger Next Year, which focuses on the idea that aging is simple decay and that with the right choices, people can be in better shape in their later years than they’ve ever been. Participants established their personal baseline when they started in September and Garant said they’re being given the tools to improve for the better.
Staff at NEMROC are being trained to work as health mentors, utilizing a relationship-based approach to help those struggling with unhealthy habits stay accountable to someone. Garant said much of what happens at NEMROC is indeed strengthened through relationships and mentoring.
“I think we do a very good job of that here,” he said.
The power that relationships formed around a healthy behavior can have on a person is something Garant has seen firsthand. He speaks fondly of a young man who started working with NEMROC while battling a heroin addiction. The employee started playing basketball twice a week and ended up quitting smoking. He eventually went to community college and acquired his electrician’s license. Garant said the man’s basketball league buddies took him under their wing and that those relationships were a big factor in his lasting recovery.
So far, about 50 employees are taking advantage of the free gym membership. Presentations have been held focused on quitting smoking, healthy eating and exercise. Thirteen employees took part in the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers 5K run and walk in September and several have even kicked their tobacco habit.
Garant made sure healthy options were available at a recent holiday party and the organization is taking steps to offer healthier fare during breaks. Nothing is forced – you can still choose to buy your favorite junk food from the vending machine – but Garant said it’s clear a shift is taking place.
“I think we’re changing the mindset,” he said. “People kind of joke about it, like they can’t bring donuts to Joe’s meetings anymore.”
Besides improved health, Garant is confident that productivity will also increase and that absenteeism will go down. He also suspects that as employees make changes, they’ll infiltrate families, inspiring everyone to get healthier. As the program continues, Garant and foundation staff are hopeful it can serve as a model for similar organizations looking to change and improve their culture of health.
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