Journeys program offers path back to productivity

LONGMONT — Russell Desersa said his part-time job cleaning fans and dehumidifiers at 24-7 Restoration Inc. is much more to him than just a paycheck.

Six months into it, Desersa said the warehouse-technician job gives him stability that helps him in other parts of his life.

While many people love their jobs, Desersa’s situation is a little more unique. The Longmont man never had a permanent job in the past, and was diagnosed two and a half years ago with bipolar disorder, a mental health condition where patients suffer mood swings between mania and depression.

Desersa started taking medication to even out the mood swings and got involved with Jeff Sidders, who runs the Journeys Employment Program, an arm of Mental Health Partners, a private nonprofit group with offices in Boulder and Longmont.

Sidders taught Desersa how to present himself at a job interview and gave him tips for avoiding bad work habits. Sidders then suggested Desersa interview at the OUR Center in Longmont, where he served and stocked food and cleaned.

After Desersa worked at the OUR Center for a couple of months, Sidders suggested he interview for a job at 24-7 Restoration.

“I like it here. I would rather stay here than go somewhere new,” Desersa said, adding that he often does day-labor jobs in his free time, because he likes to work. “I work hard, and I go out on site when needed.”

For Desersa and other people involved in getting jobs through the Journeys program, work has been a positive catalyst, getting them back on track in other parts of their lives, Sidders said. Other Longmont and Boulder employers involved in the program include The Peaks Care Center and JC Penney Co. Inc. in Longmont and the University of Colorado-Boulder and Great Harvest Bread Co. in Boulder, among others.

Mike Richardson, who co-owns 24-7 Restoration with his wife, Laura, said he treats Journeys job applicants just like any others. They go through job interviews and, if chosen, are invited to work in a one-week trial to make sure they fit well with other workers at the company.

“As they work more, they gain a lot of confidence. Having a job and having responsibilities, it’s really positive for them in that regard,” he said.

Richardson said he is “blown away” by how much Journeys applicants are just like any other cross-section of society. Many have families and children but have fallen on hard times, he said.

From a business perspective, Sidders wants to form more partnerships in the business community to get more workers out into jobs. Without willing employers to interview the job seekers, he said, the program is nothing more than a vocational-assessment service.

Journeys is funded through an annual Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation grant, Mental Health Partners and private fundraising efforts, Sidders said. There’s no cost to job seekers or employers who want to be involved in the program.

So far, the program has served 121 individual employees, with 55 of them getting jobs with one of the program’s approximately 15 employer partners — mostly in Longmont, Sidders said.

While about 50 percent to 60 percent of the jobs have been entry-level, Sidders said people with master’s degrees who suffer from depression or anxiety have come to him for help.

Job seekers go through a 15-week class on how to recognize flare-ups of their illnesses as well as how to manage stress at work and at home, Sidders said. They learn skills including emotional regulation and negative-thought distortion — how to communicate more effectively with supervisors and co-workers. People who successfully complete the class can apply for open jobs.

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