Audio and Transcript of Exec. Dir. Sean Casey's GNN Interview

February 14, 2017

This is the full GNN radio interview with Executive Director Sean Casey. It was recorded Nov. 18 (three weeks after Sean assumed his new role). Listen to it here.

GNN Radio Interview Transcription

Taped November 18, 2016

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John Clark (JC): This is Georgia focus, a public affairs presentation of this radio station and the Georgia News Network. For the next thirty minutes, we’ll feature a discussion about an issue of importance and relevance to you and your neighbors across Georgia.  Welcome to Georgia focus, I’m John Clark of the Georgia News Network.  At the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency, their goal is to make Georgia the very best state in the union for persons with disabilities regarding employment and independence.  Today our guest is Sean Casey.  He is the Executive Director for GVRA.  Sean, you are new to the GVRA. You were just sworn in by the Governor back in October, so talk a little bit about your background and how you came to this agency.

Sean Casey (SC): Yeah. Very new to the job. Three and a half weeks in, so the phrase drinking from a fire hose truly, truly applies here. But really, it is humbling, it is an honor.  It is an amazing organization.  I choose not to use the word agency.  You’ll notice this.  When I hear the word agency, I think about a big amoeba that’s just growing and growing and growing and maybe failing to meet its mission, its core, its goals.  But with GVRA, which again is short for the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency, it’s an organization.  And this was introduced, I would say, via law, signed into law, by Governor Nathan Deal in 2012 and if I can maybe backtrack, the reason I think I find myself in this position was in 2012, it was decided by the Governor that we were going to, in essence, set this organization free.  At that time, it was under the Georgia Department of Labor.  I got the phone call and sat down with the Governor and others and they said, make it happen. And I said, “Yes, sir.”  And so I got to know the stakeholders very well, very intimately.  I got to know the organization very intimately, and that legislation did pass both the house and senate, signed by the Governor, and it became independent in July, if you will, 2012. With the retirement of the old Executive Director, the Board reached out to the Governor’s office and said, well, we worked with Sean in the past, is he available?  And so that conversation started, and that’s kind of why I’m sitting here speaking with you this morning. But really, with, what I want to talk about is the organization again, and its role throughout the state here. Again, it was established in 2012.  And the primary mission is to connect the people with disabilities to careers to help them achieve their maximum independence through employment.  Basically, we’re not handing out jobs.  We’re not in that business.  The way I’m envisioning it, the way I envision this organization is, we are kind of clearing the field.  We’re the offensive line.  We’ve gotta make sure that these individuals.  Individuals with disabilities, if they choose to work, that they can get in touch with us, get in touch with our partners, get in touch with our counselors, get in touch with the programs, that they are aware of the programs, and we’ll clear the field, and they can go as far as they wanna go. And that’s really how I see our role with this organization with GVRA.  And we’re doing this really through 40 local offices spread throughout the entire state.  And actually a quick funny story, I was in a meeting yesterday all morning, at the Kia plant down in West Point Georgia, I looked at my map when we were done on my phone and I said, ‘You know, Columbus is just about a 45 minute drive South, I’m gonna pop into one of our offices.  And I thought it was a good idea, but then as I walked in, I saw the look on their faces.  I think I kinda scared the pants outta them. Why is this guy here? What’s wrong? What’s the problem? But we’re doing this really through our 40 local offices. And it’s, the focus, it is my philosophy that they focus has gotta be on these offices.  It’s got to be on these counselors. The people who are working in these offices.  The people who are on the front line.  The people who are in the trenches.  That’s where the focus has got to be. They are the ones who, you know, you think of these individuals, these counselors, this is not a summer job.  This is not something you do maybe to springboard to another state agency or federal work or what have you.  You gotta go through years and years and years of education to get qualified to be a counselor, and then you gotta go through continuing education every year to make sure you’re up to date, up to speed. And people within the organization who are dealing with the clients, and I do use the word clients, they live and they breathe it.  And so again, my focus is to make sure that they have all the skills, all the tools necessary so that they can serve their clients, our clients.  And besides the 40 offices I should add that we also, under the GVRA umbrella, we also have Roosevelt Warm Springs, which I know a lot of us are aware of, you have a lot of history there.  We also have the Georgia Industries for the Blind, the Business Enterprise Program, Cave Spring Center, and we also administer the disability services, which is really for individuals who simply because of the level of their disability simply cannot get that job.

JC:   So when you say that you administer places like Warm Springs, do you do that for rehabilitation purposes? Physical Rehabilitation?

SC:  Yes, that would be correct. Yeah, we take in the client, there’s that word.  We take in the client.  They go through an introduction period.  We work with them and then depending on their level of disabilities, they’ll be there for different periods of time, but it’s the same concept, the same philosophy, to make she that these individuals, when they do graduate, have the necessary life skill sets, they have the necessary employment skill sets, so that when they are ready, and again, we’re not going to force you to get a job, that’s to each on his own, so then you have what’s necessary to reach your highest potential.

JC: At a facility like that, where you’re receiving physical rehab, you’re also, at the same time, simultaneously helping them to gain skills one they’re done, am I getting that right?

SC: Yeah, that’s right.  That’s a hundred percent correct.  It’s soft skills, depending again on the individual in each individual case, it could be something as basic as, alright, we’re going to educate someone on how to set the alarm, how to get dressed, how to get transportation to and from the job. That’s actually a very key component.  So it runs the whole gamut, from the soft skills to the work skills.

JC: Now when a job seeker comes to GVRA, for services, not necessarily rehabilitative, physical rehabilitation, but services as far as learning about jobs, what happens at that point?

SC: When someone comes to our organization, to GVRA, most of the time, not all of the time, but most of the time, that is a referral.  That referral could be from the school system, a provider, maybe a doctor, or maybe just word of mouth.  You know, my uncle or my brother or my grandfather used your services back in the day, so that’s kind of first off how they get in our door.  Now their first point of contact is the local offices, because we’re serving an entire state.  You’re not going to ask someone to travel from Atlanta to Savannah.  We have 40 local offices, so that first point of contact will be that local office.  We also have a website, I’ll plug it now.  It is (replace) We also have a customer care phone number, which is (844) FOR-GVRA.  That’s (844) FOR-GVRA.  And the FOR is F-O-R.  Which is another way a potential client can get ahold of us, and just working through that first phase in the process because when they do come in, they are receiving a personal assessment to determine their eligibility, to kind of figure out how much training or assistance a person needs. And once that’s determined, our counselors will figure out an individualized employment program, or a plan to put them in the best possible situation.  So someone does not come in the door and just get the same pamphlet.  It is custom-made to each individual because each individual is going to have a different situation and different goals.  It is a very personal situation between the counselor and the client. 

JC: Today, we’re talking about the work of the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency – GVRA – and our guest is Sean Casey. He is the Executive Director of GVRA.  Sean, what types of disabilities do you serve?

SC: We serve every single disability out there, if it is a physical disability or if it is more of a mental disability.  Not trying to be funny, but these situations are an equal opportunity employer. White, black, male, female, young, old, we all have someone who’s been affected one way or another. And I don’t have more data to say we see more X, Y… but we deal with everything.

JC: What about veterans? There are a lot of disabled veterans right now.  Talk about how you can assist them.

SC: That’s an excellent question, John.  I appreciate you bringing that up. Obviously, here in Georgia we have a plethora of military basis.  We have a wave of soldiers who are coming back to the United States, and unfortunately, some of them have been injured on the battlefield.  I know it is a key, top frame of mind point with the Governor.  I know it is top frame of mind within our organization, and we do have excellent relationships with the military, with the bases here in Georgia, with Fort Stewart, with Fort Benning. And we are really going to be putting even more of an effort here into reaching out to our veteran groups, to the military, to say hey, we have these programs.  We’re not a one-stop shop but we are part of the solution, we’re part of the answer. We can help, and we will help.  I take this very personally.  I have family that have served overseas.  I have friends that have continued to serve and are overseas.  A coworker, I met a woman down yesterday in our Columbus office, her husband is overseas right now in Afghanistan.  So this is something I take very personally. I know it touches people within our organization, and working with the different veterans’ groups, working with veterans coming back, we will be putting in even more of an effort.  I look forward to about in a year, looking forward to the advances that we’ve made, especially with the veterans.

 JC: What age group are your clients?

SC: Every age. Any age I should say.  I would say there’s been some new legislation passed at the federal level where our organization will start nailing down clients earlier and earlier into school, and I wanna say the current age at which we can serve someone is fourteen right now.  The new age is fourteen, which actually studies have shown, the earlier you can get a hold of a child, the greater the odds a child will be successful.  And I’ll take a time out and take a step back: Think of individuals we know who at age 50 have a stroke or obtain a disability for some unknown reason.  So the age range is not to be cute or not to be funny, so these issues, issues of disability, are equal opportunity.

JC:  Add to that, someone who comes in who maybe has just recently become blind, or through an accident or something, has disabilities, it is an adjustment to their life.  So that plays a role in it too. They’re used to doing things this way and now they have to learn how to adjust.

SC: Yeah, that would be when someone might first need to just learn how to navigate their home.  What do I do in the kitchen?  I used to cook. Now my sight is diminished or completely gone, so I need to learn almost everything, all your skills over again. So for someone who has lost their sight or the sight has become greatly diminished, that is not an easy road. That is not an easy road, I will say.  And that takes a, maybe a little bit longer than other individuals.

JC: And is that where your relationship with Georgia Industries for the Blind comes in in that particular situation?

SC: Well, my hat’s off to Georgia Industries for the Blind. And I also wanna say, we can’t do this alone.  We don’t have enough employees, they have lives outside of work. They have husbands, fathers, husbands, wives, kids.  We partner up with other organizations throughout the community, if it’s Easter Seals, if it’s United Way. And they are also part of this team. And that’s something people at work are probably sick of me saying, is team.  We have to work together.  Really, what we do is not rocket science.  We have a very simple goal. We have a very simple mission. And we will work together to achieve that mission.  Going back to the individuals who are working with our clients who have vision difficulties or disabilities, my hat’s off to them, because they are doing… I mean, we all are… but they are doing a great job.

JC: What is the climate like, as far as the job climate for people with disabilities?

SC: Well, I would say if you look at a macro-level, especially where we were in 2009, I do tip my hat off to the Governor and to the legislators and to the Governor’s staff, they had a choice to make in ’09, what direction do we want to take this state economically. And I think the proof’s in the pudding, and I don’t think a week goes by where you don’t hear one, at least two major announcements that UPS is opening up a new center or some other company is leaving Ohio.  So the market is very viable.  It is very viable compared to say, some other states.  But again, we are, it is slightly different with our clients. The opportunity is there, and how we and our partners are engaging the clients, the opportunities are there, and if they want to seize them, seize the day, they can do that.

JC: You said that you don’t, that you’re not an organization that finds people jobs, but how do you help them and do you have relationships with UPS or somebody like that so that you can in some ways match them up?

SC: We don’t, we’re not giving out jobs, is kind of what I’m getting at. That may be a better way I should have verbalized that.

JC: Well, that’s actually what you said.

SC: Okay, good. (laughs) You’re not coming to us, and we’re not handing you a job.  We’re not a charity.  We are *not* a charity organization.  What we do is help partner up, if it’s FAA and UPS and Coca Cola, and especially in the rural areas, getting outside your metro markets, working with those smaller businesses and organizations, when they come in the door and they’re ready to get that job, we already have those relationships established.  We already have a database in house that we use and help a client.  We help connect them. Now if they earn the job or not, that’s on the client. But we are not a charity organization.  But we do have a continuous, we have an excellent relationship actually, throughout the state, with a number of employers who have used our clients and are very, very, very happy.

JC: Today, we are talking with Sean Casey, the Executive Director of the GVRA, the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency. I assume your services are cost-free to those who do it.

SC: Correct, yes. No, no, there’s no… zero dollars.

JC: What about outreach? Do you have someone who’s been, in a rehabilitation hospital for example, do you seek them out and try to connect with them and let them know you’re available once they’re in a position to move forward, or do they have to come to you?

SC: Right.  In regards to outreach, I have a couple of different thoughts on that.  And one is, we do have excellent relationships with employers throughout the state.  We have excellent relationships with the partners, with organizations we partner up with, throughout the state. But one phrase I have heard more times than I can count over the last three and a half weeks is, “Oh, you guys are a hidden gem. This is fantastic, but we didn’t know you were around.” So outreach on top of other items is going to be on the top of our to-do list as an organization, to get the word out there.  And that’s kind of why we’re, why you and I are sitting here today. Thank you again for the opportunity. I do appreciate it. We need the public out there. We need to be more aware.  And again, one of the first steps is sitting here speaking with you today.

JC: And I think there are probably a lot of people who could qualify for your services, like, well, it’s a matter of awareness, but they don’t know about it, or they’ve never thought of moving forward. They think, well, my career’s over.  I can’t do anything else.

SC: Correct. And another excellent point: That’s where I think through the new federal law that passed recently where we are now focusing on people who are younger, people as young as the age of fourteen, that will help us greatly. To be able to get that awareness out to a younger set of individuals,  even if at that time, you don’t need our services, you’re gonna know about us from high school, and Lord forbid, you get in that car accident, you’ve heard about us.  You’ve heard about us in high school and college.  And so the outreach, and becoming more aware in the public is a goal for this organization.   

JC: For some of the younger people, do you help them readjust to school? Or readjust so they can move on to college?

SC: Yes, you know, one of the earlier comments I made was, I was speaking with some individuals, and they were saying, we want to promote more of our recent hires. And the analogy someone gave was, a client is at their new job in Walmart, and they’re standing there next to the manager holding their broom.  And it’s your first job. I had that first job, we all did.

JC: God, yeah.

SC: (laughs) First jobs are the worst. And that’s great, but, I want the picture of the individual who just became partner in a law firm.  I want the picture of the individual who just became VP of Marketing at Coca-Cola, so when you talk about secondary education, that is a focus of this organization, is, we’re not a charity group.  We’re not going to give you a job.  We want to make sure you have the skill sets to climb as high as possible, and if that is a partner in a law firm, if that is VP of Marketing at Coca-Cola or whatever it may be, we’re going to make sure that you have the skill sets to get there.  Now we also do have a very good relationship with TCSG, which is the Technical College System of Georgia. We also have an excellent relationship with Kennesaw State.  We’re starting some beginning relationships with UGA. I wanna say maybe Emory’s in that.  I know I’m leaving some schools off here.

JC: Sure.

SC: But it’s for that secondary… great, you know, I finished high school… I don’t wanna be where I am today.  I wanna learn more, I wanna become that partner at a law firm or VP of Marketing. And so we are, we have those relationships. We’re developing new ones for that, for the college, or even post-college.

JC: What about corporations? Do they come to you and say, hey, maybe we can partner together? We’d like for you to help us bring in good workers.

SC: Yeah. Yeah. And we do. Cause again, at the end of the day, we all know someone who’s been affected one way or the other, for one reason or another, with a disability. And so we, you, we have these business leaders throughout all communities, throughout the state who have maybe a brother, a dad, a mom, a wife, a child, a cousin, whatnot, and they see you can achieve your goals, but it’s just a little bit, say, harder.

JC: Yeah.

SC: And we all have, we all have hearts. We all wanna give back. And so we are constantly receiving new phone calls, new inquiries from business leaders throughout the state who say, “Hey, I have, I can help. Tell me how.”

JC: Yeah.

SC: And I think that’s just the human side too. And again, it’s not charity. You still have to perform your duty. But we have, we really do have excellent relationships throughout the entire state, not just your metro, but—

JC: With forty offices around the state, you cover it very well, so they know the local community, the local community knows them.

SC: And it does, it does take a village. It really does. And we’re working with the local leaders in the communities, whether it’s the mayor or the county commissioner or the sheriff. Whoever might be. These leaders in the local communities and in business are working with us and are constantly reaching out to us, you know, “How can we help? What can we do?” and we are very—it’s very humbling and appreciated.

JC: Yeah. You mentioned your staff early on.  You have trained certified counselors who are very competent.  Is there a need for more counselors?  Is that… can you always use more help in that regard?

SC:  Yes. That answer, without hesitation is yes.  It always, we do need more counselors. The goal today, or the goal moving forward, is we want to increase, and we’re working on the final numbers, I don’t have any, and I’m not going to throw out hard numbers right now--

JC: Right, right.

SC: We’re looking to dramatically increase the number of individuals we are working with every single year, and we can’t do that unless we have those sort of boots on the ground.  The individuals on the front line and in the trenches. And so, is there a need for more counselors? Yes. What I can also tell you in regards to the counselors and those offices? That is where the focus is gonna be. It is not gonna be in my office.  It is not gonna be in our COO’s office or HR’s office.  It’s going to be with the counselors and with their offices, because, once again, they are the ones really driving this organization, not me. Not me.  Not me.

JC: And anyone wanting your services?

SC: You can email, you can call in… and we will be there, and work with you individually. Again, we’re not just handing you a pamphlet.  We’re working with each individual because each individual has a very specific case.

JC: Right.

SC: And we are molding, and building the plan for you.

JC: Right. Well, Sean, I thank you for being on the show today.  This is certainly something that I was not aware of, so you’ve increased some awareness just by coming in here today.

SC: Well, John, I appreciate the time.  It is an honor, a privilege, to be with you.

JC: Let’s hope that fire hose goes down to a garden hose.

SC: (laughter)

JC: It probably won’t go much below that because I know you’re going to be busy all the time, but at least you can get to that point.

SC: And that’ll be fine.  If I can take more arrows, if you will, and allow the counselors to do more work, I’ll sleep easy at night.

JC: Good luck in the new position.

SC: Thank you, John.

JC: Today, our guest has been Sean Casey, he is Executive Director of the GVRA. That’s the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency, whose goal is to make Georgia the very best state in the union for Georgians with disabilities regarding employment and independence.  We thank Sean for being our guest today, and as always, we thank you for listening.  And we’ll talk to you next week, here on Georgia focus.

Voiceover: You’ve been listening to Georgia Focus, a public affairs presentation of this station and the Georgia News Network.