James Kirwin Starts Job at the Veterans Administration

James KirwinBy age 28, James Kirwin was holding down multiple jobs and going to school, studying hydrogeochemistry, the study of groundwater systems. But when he became blind “pretty much overnight,” all his skills no longer seemed relevant. “When I lost my eyesight, seven months later I lost my job, because I just couldn’t do it anymore.” It didn’t take James long to learn, though, that he’d need to seek out a new kind of education before he’d be back on the path toward employment. That’s around the time James’ Department of Rehabilitation Counsellor John Grote told him about the LightHouse Employment Immersion program.

“It kind of reminded me of college, to be quite honest with you,” James said recently of the program, which he enrolled in during October of 2013. With the help of Justine Harris-Richburgh, our current Volunteer Program Coordinator who led the class that session, James learned that finding a new purpose as a blind person was not solely about having the qualifications, but also convincing potential employers of that fact. “We learned different tactics in dealing with people, in order to make it so that the word ‘blind’ is not the first thing that comes to their heads in interviews; different ways to explain to people that we can do the job just as well as they can, we just might have to do it in a different way.”

This month, James started his new job at AbilityOne, working in procurement for the VA Hospital. He was alerted to the job opening by Kate Williams, Employment Immersion Program Leader; staying in touch with Williams after the program ends is something she encourages with each class. Eventually he may want to go back to school, too, but says that he’d rather get a teaching credential than go back to studying ground water systems. For now, he’s glad that all his hard work and skill-building has landed him a steady job, and he stays connected with almost all the students from his Employment Immersion class. “Most of the students in the class have gotten the job that they pretty much wanted, or they’ve taken the first step toward that.”

Harris-Richburgh attributes much of James’ success to his tenacity and consistently good attitude. For starters, he had no problem taking on interviews. “He was willing to go anywhere and consider any kind of job lead,” she says, “even if he wasn’t initially excited about it, he saw it as practice.” Staying in touch with the program leaders at LightHouse was also a big part of James’ success. “Any time there was an announcement or a job opening I would always throw James’ name in there,” Harris-Richburgh points out, “because I remembered his personality, that he was dedicated and really wanted to work.”

Ultimately, James learned that the key to finding employment was, in his words, “trying to take the stigma of blindness out of peoples’ eyes — make them realize that I can do what they can do, I just might have to do it in a different way.” In class, he learned this through interviews with professionals such as an HR director from Google, who conducted mock interviews with the EI students, after which providing them with a breakdown of where they were strong and where they needed improvement.

James has learned that employment, unlike blindness, won’t always come overnight, which is why his best recommendation is to not be afraid to take small steps in reaching your goals. One of those, for him, was signing up for Employment Immersion. “It’s a lot of hard work, but ultimately, it’s greatly rewarding.”

Are you new to the working world and not sure how to get started? Or do you just want to kick your career up a notch? The next Employment Immersion session will run every Tuesday and Thursday from September 1 through October 1, 2015 at the LightHouse office at the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley. For more information, please contact Kate Williams at kwilliams@lighthouse-sf.org or 415-694-7324.