From Poverty to a Paycheck: Kessler Aims to Bolster Employment Odds of the Disabled

A rising tide lifts all boats, and a recent study shows that as the economy improves, disabled people are enjoying a bump in their employment numbers. The Kessler Foundation wants to jump on that positive wave and ride it for all it's worth. By expanding training and employment initiatives, the foundation is looking to fund nonprofit disability organizations that want to take their strategy to the next level with more and better ways to hook up disabled people with jobs.

Through their Signature Employment grants program, the Kessler Foundation is granting up to $500,000 over two years to organizations that can find new ways to improve the employment picture for the disabled population. The foundation supports pilots, demonstrations projects, and social ventures, with a preference for interventions that overcome "specific employment barriers related to long-term dependence on public assistance, advance competitive employment in a cost-effective manner, or launch a social enterprise or individual entrepreneurship project."

Kessler is one of the country's largest foundations specifically advocating for more work opportunities for the disabled, an area often overlooked by other funders. It started making grants in 2005 with the goal of helping people with physical and cognitive disabilities caused by stroke, multiple sclerosis, injuries to the brain and spinal cord, and other chronic conditions. Kessler has a two-tiered approach of bolstering research into rehabilitation for disabled people and providing employment training to get people back into the workforce.

In 2014, Kessler awarded 32 new grants in 7 states. An example of Kessler's approach is its support of "Putting Faith to Work," a program out of Vanderbilt University Kennedy Center in Nashville, TN, which aims to "equip faith communities with tools to support employment for their members with disabilities." This program gives money to churches to work with members of their community who have disabilities and want to seek employment. The church congregation uses its organic networks in the community, which tend to be established and trusted, as a way to build connections to jobs for disabled people.

Kessler makes grants to programs that work with disabled people in three categories: Signature Employment Grants, such as "Putting Faith to Work," which are given nationally; Community Employment Grants, which are mainly for New Jersey but have branched out to Washington D.C. and California recently; and Special Initiative Grants which are by invitation only.

The foundation points to the problem of high rates of unemployment for the disabled community, and the fact that one in four Americans with disabilities live in poverty. People with disabilities already earn less than the general population, and unemployment often leaves them with few alternatives other than trying to eke out an existence on public dollars, which usually keeps them at or below poverty.

Kessler wants to change that, by supporting projects that include opening public spaces for disabled people to display and sell their artwork, programs that provide rides to work, and more telecommuting opportunities for people who can't drive. Kessler also supports programs that provide vocational skills training, peer mentorship, and advanced education for disabled people.  

Applications for this year's Signature Employment grants are due no later than February 13, 2015. Selected candidates will be invited to submit full proposals by June 6. Projects should be collaborative, with multiple funders and stakeholders, and the potential for growth and replication. 


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