The unemployment rate for people with mental illnesses can be as high as 90 percent nationwide, but one local program is making strides in lowering that number here in La Crosse.
The Family and Children's Center has offered its supported employment program for about three years. The program aims to help people with persistent mental illnesses find their own place in the workforce, and it's working. Of the 20 people currently enrolled, eight have jobs and several others are in school, according to FCC Employment Specialist Amber Kaio. One of those success stories includes 29-year-old Pierre Thomas.
Thomas has been working in the stockroom at Hobby Lobby in Onalaska for six months, and his employers say he comes to work daily with a positive attitude and a great sense of humor.
"Ever since we got him on board, he's been absolutely fantastic, just a very positive bright light and really a pleasure to have working here," said store manager Dave Marcou.
Thomas worked with FCC's employment program to land a job at Hobby Lobby. The program offered him resources like help with applications, mock interviews and more. Through a partnership with the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, the program also provides transportation and work clothes to Thomas and others.
When he was younger, Thomas was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and shizophrenia, events that ultimately led to his enrollment at FCC.
"Before [FCC], I was basically in hospitals a lot," Thomas said. "FCC treats me as a human being, they don't treat me as a diagnosis."
Kaio, his counselor, said working at Hobby Lobby has helped Thomas make leaps and bounds in his mental health recovery. Thomas says it's provided him with the skills necessary to pursue his next goal - a career in fashion.
"I gained my confidence back, I became me and that was a huge part that I was missing for a long time before I became part of FCC," Thomas said.
Thomas is currently working on receiving his high school diploma through Western Technical College.