Join Jason and Taylor as they discuss their careers at the Omni Homestead and hear how Penni’s mini job fair opened the doors of opportunity.

Taylor and chef

Rick Sizemore Twitter @Rickwwrc or email,

Anne Hudlow’s email is

The Omni Homestead, Jenny Lorenzo, Sr. Talent Acquisition Manager   540-839-3833

Penni Wetherell


Automated: VR Workforce Studio.

Announcer: VR Workforce Studio. Inspiration, education, and affirmation at work. Welcome to another episode as we open up the VR Workforce Studio to champion the courageous stories of vocational rehabilitation from individuals with disabilities.

Speaker 1: Listen to our amazing stories about the disability employment journey.

Speaker 2: Hear us describe our pathway through the challenge.

Speaker 3: And feel the joy and share in our inspiration as we overcome disabilities and go to work.

Announcer: We’ll also meet the champions of business and industry who hire individuals with disabilities.

Speaker 4: I can say beyond the shadow of a doubt that some of our best employees have disabilities.

Announcer: And hear from the VR professionals who have dedicated their lives and careers to helping individuals with disabilities go to work.

Now here’s the host of the VR Workforce Studio, Rick Sizemore, along with the Executive Director of the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center Foundation, Anne Hudlow.

Automated: Begin countdown. Four, three, two, one.

Anne Hudlow: On today’s episode of the VR Workforce Studio, we’ll meet two young men whose paths through vocational rehabilitation lead to them to careers at Omni’s Homestead Resort. We’ll also talk with business development manager, Penni Wetherell on how she use the targeted mini job fair to partner with Omni’s talent acquisition manager, Jennifer Lorenzo and connect Omni to the VR talent pipeline.

We now join Rick Sizemore out at the Omni Homestead for our inspiration showcase with Jason Wildman.

Rick Sizemore: Jason, tell us about your job here at Omni.

Jason Wildman: Yes Rick. I work at the Jefferson Restaurant here at the Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs. I’m a food busser and server, and I basically do everything that needs to be done.

Rick Sizemore: Now, you went through vocational rehabilitation in the recent past. What did you learn through your vocational rehabilitation program that made this job possible?

Jason Wildman: What I’ve learned at Woodrow Wilson Workforce Center was like, the customer service and just the ability to show the workforce how good of employee anybody can come into. And I would highly recommend anybody to go to the Wilson Workforce Center because it’s a great school and it will definitely help anybody that has a disability, or anybody that has … Anyone to like go and become more mature in the workforce.

Rick Sizemore: Take us back to the time you were training at Wilson. What kind of things did you do on an average day to improve your skills.

Jason Wildman: Customer service always comes first at the Omni Homestead. When I was in materials handling I learned anything from stocking to reordering, putting purchase orders in. So that has definitely help with my position that I am here because if they need me to go down to shipping, receiving, which has happened numerous times. I would go back and they would just give me the list and it would help right away.

Rick Sizemore: So you’ve been able to use those skills from materials handling in the work you’re doing here?

Jason Wildman: Correct.

Rick Sizemore: So tell us about your disability.

Jason Wildman: When I was born, I was born with ADHD and ADD. So I’m pretty fortunate that I’ve actually matured a lot since I was a little teenager. So it’s hard to believe you’re 21 years old now, and you can definitely become successful… Definitely.

Rick Sizemore: Did you do things at Wilson that helped with overcoming the disability?

Jason Wildman: Yes. I went to a lot like, peer pressure classes. I went to … What is it like? The guidance counselors there. They have actually help me a lot. So I was pretty fortunate to have a good rehabilitation team to guide me to the right path.

Rick Sizemore: Okay. Well, one of the things that the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act focuses on is the ability for someone who’s going through voc rehab to keep the job for six months and then a year, but also to look at their wages at six months end of the job. And you’re almost there.

Jason Wildman: Yes.

Rick Sizemore: Are you making good money?

Jason Wildman: Yes sir. I am. I’m actually making my checks, sir. Probably one in between $700 to $900 every two weeks.

Rick Sizemore: So you’re working full time?

Jason Wildman: Yes sir. It’s full time job, and full benefits, all the way.

Rick Sizemore: Well, tell us about the benefits package because that’s what everyone really gets interested in.

Jason Wildman: Here at Omni Homestead Resort, we have a benefit package such as healthcare 401K. The 401K plan, they match up to 3%, which is pretty pretty good. They have an eye care plan, dental, all the normal benefits that most employees approve of. And most of the time for a normal employee, to pay about $103 a month. And it’s actually really really good.

Rick Sizemore: And you’re living here?

Jason Wildman: Yes, I live right in downtown Hot Springs. The rent is about $80 every week and it’s $160 every pay check. So roughly it’s about $320 a month for a little one bedroom.

Rick Sizemore: Now, is that part of the hotel or you just found the place here?

Jason Wildman: They are actually the Omni employee housing. There’s two employee housing complexes off site. It’s actually really really nice place. So I really really like it.

Rick Sizemore: Now, we had an opportunity at Wilson Workforce to hold a job fair. And I remember you going to that job fair saying to me, “I’m gonna work at the Omni Homestead.” Take us back and tell me about that experience at the job fair as a way to connect you to Omni.

Jason Wildman: When I went to the job fair, I was there and I was talking with John Ferguson, the chef here, and a few of the human resources directors. I had my resume typed up when I was doing JSS training at Wilson Workforce Center, and they were really surprised about what happened. I showed them from everything, from my certifications to the flagging course to customer service, materials handling and all my other certifications I have. And they were really impressed. And I told them I had experience in the food service, and they wanted to bring me up for a tour. So they were pretty interested. And within two weeks, I got a phone call for me to come up to the Omni Homestead and did the tour and had the interview and I was hired right on the spot.

Rick Sizemore: Well that was a great day, wasn’t it?

Jason Wildman: Yes sir. It really was. I was really fortunate

Rick Sizemore: I know that in the heat of the moment, it all seemed very very exciting, but now that you’re hired, and you look back on the job fair, does that seem like a good way to bring people with disabilities and employers together?

Jason Wildman: I definitely do. I really think that job fair at any vocational training school or any college for anybody brings in a lot of interest. Because you never know you could have anybody, all across the world with any type of disability or any type of momentum that wants to work to go to a job fair, and it would definitely help them out a lot. I highly recommend it.

Rick Sizemore: What’s it like working at Omni? Are they supportive of you as a person with the disability and the work that you do?

Jason Wildman: Yes, they are. The team that they have here is really really friendly. If you need help with anything, they are more than welcome you or come to you with anything that needs to be done. The team that they have is just unbelievable, and I’m really fortunate to work for a company like this.

Rick Sizemore: Jason Wildman, very successful in working at your new job. We wish you nothing but the very best and great success in the year ahead.

Jason Wildman: Thank you sir. Thank you so much.

Rick Sizemore: Okay. Thank you.

Anne Hudlow: Rick, Jason is doing just great, and thanks so much for making the trip to the Homestead and for that wonderful interview.

Rick Sizemore: It really wasn’t a problem.

Anne Hudlow: Yes. It’s a nice trip I guess. We are so fortunate to have with us in the studio today. Penni Wetherell, who is a business development manager with the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services.

Rick Sizemore: Yes. And she reached out to Omni to open up these opportunities for folks like Jason. Welcome to the podcast, Penni.

Penni Wetherell: Thank you. It’s great to be here, Rick.

Rick Sizemore: So we’re gonna get into the story of business engagement and I’d like to get started with your story of opening up the relationship with Omni Homestead over in Hot Springs and how you did that. Take us back to the beginning and tell us the story.

Penni Wetherell: Well, I’d love to. To give you a little bit of background, my approach to business engagement and my strategy has been what fits best for our area. I cover the Bath, the Highland, the Rockbridge, and Augusta areas. And from day one, I felt like an approach from the bottom up work best for our small area. And an approach that is genuine. I work with small businesses, new businesses, family businesses, and employees themselves that answer to a group of corporate investors. I’m sympathetic to an employer’s needs and I have an understanding because I have been in their shoes as a business owner and an employer myself.

Rick Sizemore: So you’ve been on both sides of the fence?

Penni Wetherell: Yes. I have. And I feel like a relationship of trust has to be built. I approached the Homestead during my first few months here as a job placement counselor. What I soon realize is, if there had been hundreds of employers in the Bath county area, I would choose the Homestead each and every time because they have a human touch that they extend to their employees. And that’s important for us-

Rick Sizemore: It’s really amazing, is it?

Penni Wetherell: It’s something … It’s really incredible. I mean I took a tour and that day I remember meeting folks from all over the country. And they share their success stories with me. And I remember thinking, “Wow! Our consumers could have that same opportunity for those type of success stories.” Right away, I knew that this was an environment that our consumers could thrive in. And then a few weeks later, I met Taylor Henning.

Rick Sizemore: Tell us about Taylor.

Penni Wetherell: Oh my goodness. I met Taylor just a few weeks as I said, after approaching Homestead back in 2011. And very impressed with Taylor. I felt that he had gained the skills and the credentials necessary through the materials management program here, at WWRC. And I felt like that he could, there is no doubt, he could be employed in a competitive integrated employment through the life skills training that he received at WWRC. He was also prepared to live independently, and he was ready.

Rick Sizemore: I recall hearing early on, his family believing that he might wind up in sheltered employment or in a sheltered workshop. That might be the only option for him.

Penni Wetherell: Right. And you know Taylor’s dad was very involved in our meetings, and set around the table with myself, Taylor’s rehabilitation counselor that time. I remember Taylor’s dad mentioning some employers in the area that Taylor lived in at the time and he kind of was going in that direction. But from a job placement counselor standpoint, that just wasn’t my first recommendation. So that’s when I pitched the Homestead idea.

So after a few days of thinking about it. Everybody went home with these ideas in their mind, but I got a call several days later from Taylor and got one from dad and they said, “Well, let’s try it.” And I said, “Well, that’s all we can do.” So Taylor completed the employment application. He and I got together and do the mock interviewing. We kind of knew at that point about the customer service aspect, what Taylor’s duties would be possibly and we talked about it. Met Taylor every day and we looked around the Homestead a little bit. Looked at the onsite housing, which is similar to what you all have available here at WWRC. So it just seem like a good fit.

Taylor was hired and he was promoted a year later. So that was pretty cool. I remember getting a call from Taylor after he had been there just a couple of months and he said, “You know what happened to me today?” He said, “I paid my own cellphone bill.”

Anne Hudlow: Oh.

Rick Sizemore: Every parents dream.

Anne Hudlow: And I bet the dad called and said, “Guess what? He paid his own cellphone bill.”

Penni Wetherell: And he did. I got a separate call from dad and he told me that Taylor was doing well. He expressed his appreciation for everything that WWRC and DARS, all the contributions. The training down to so many things and yes, that’s a thought that he left me with too, was, “You know what else? Taylor’s paying his own cellphone bill.”

Anne Hudlow: Well Penni, we would like to go back to the Omni now. As Rick joins Taylor and John Ferguson on site to find out about his job and exactly what Taylor does.

Taylor Henning: I’m a steward at Omni Homestead Resort.

Rick Sizemore: So what kind of things do you do as a Steward?

Taylor Henning: Put on take out to this machine as big as a miniature school bus.

Rick Sizemore: As big as a miniature school bus?

Taylor Henning: Yup.

Rick Sizemore: That is incredible. We’re also fortunate to be joined by John Ferguson, who also works here at Omni as a sous Chef. Delightful to have you on the podcast, John.

John Ferguson: Thank you. I’m the executive sous chef here at the beautiful Omni Homestead. And we’re awfully proud of all of our associates especially Taylor here who works very hard, and just had the best attitude.

Rick Sizemore: What’s your favorite part of the job?

Taylor Henning: Probably everything.

Rick Sizemore: Well, give us some examples. What’s the perfect day in Omni? When you’re just having the greatest day in the world, what kind of things are you doing on those days?

Taylor Henning: When you have a lunch for 200 and you have to put everything out in 20 minutes.

Rick Sizemore: That seems pretty significant. 200 and you have to get everything out. So what kind of things do you do to get that work done?

Taylor Henning: We have to play it up and I’m really good at that.

Rick Sizemore: Tell us about your co-workers.

Taylor Henning: All of them are real nice especially my boss, Chris. Chris couldn’t be here today.

Rick Sizemore: You seem like a wonderful employee. John, what kinds of things would you have to say about the actual job that Taylor is doing here?

John Ferguson: Well Taylor is doing just a fantastic job. He always wants to help out. Even those things that aren’t steward related. Like when Taylor’s working at our seasonal-

Taylor Henning: Or the ski lodge.

John Ferguson: yes our seasonal restaurant. Even if he’s assigned there to wash the dishes or to take the trash out, if the cooks need help in the kitchen, he loves going there, wash his hands and help with the food together as well. He’s really passionate about that.

Taylor Henning: Yup, because I took culinary and have really good knife skills.

Rick Sizemore: How long do you see yourself working here at this-

Taylor Henning: I would like to retire here. This is actually a career for me. I thought stocking would be a career, but this has actually turned out to be a career.

Rick Sizemore: And one of the cool things about the work here at Omni is that you actually live here in this historic property.

Taylor Henning: Yes.

Rick Sizemore: Tell us about what it’s like living here at Omni.

Taylor Henning: Yeah. I like living in the Virginia because you have your own privacy-

John Ferguson: It’s right across the street so it’s really easy to get to work even when it’s snowy.

Rick Sizemore: And I hear sometimes you actually walk to work, but there’s also transportation.

Taylor Henning: I usually walk to work or John will pick me up if he sees me or …

John Ferguson: Yeah.

Rick Sizemore: What’s it like working for this guy?

Taylor Henning: Very good. I’m happy he’s here.

John Ferguson: I’m happy to be here. Yeah.

Rick Sizemore: Do you ever have occasion to need any extra assistance in doing the work that you do or you can be self-sufficient?

Taylor Henning: Not really. I can do it by myself.

John Ferguson: Yeah. I agree. The things he needs to do his job is what everybody needs when they do their job, you know. He needs towels or chemicals or an apron or something. That’s the same thing everybody else needs.

Rick Sizemore: Right.

Taylor Henning: I usually don’t wear an apron. I don’t like wearing them because it’s restricting. You can’t move as well when washing pots.

Rick Sizemore: If somebody’s listening to this podcast who has never hired someone with a disability, what would you say to them?

Taylor Henning: Come on and apply.

Rick Sizemore: Yeah. Why do you believe people with disabilities make good workers?

Taylor Henning: Because we all have different abilities that we’re good at. So if you’re good at something here. Then, come on and apply.

Rick Sizemore: You have some famous guests here.

Taylor Henning: Yes.

Rick Sizemore: Who have you met from these famous-

Taylor Henning: Rick Flair, President George W. Bush, Monte Durham-

John Ferguson: Oh yeah, the guy from Say Yes to the Dress. Yeah. We’re having a wedding with one of his … With one who said yes to the dress on Monday. Yeah. So we look forward to that for TV.

Rick Sizemore: Wow. Well, tell us about one of the most challenging weeks you’ve had.

Taylor Henning: New Year’s eve. That’s our first-

Rick Sizemore: What was that like?

Taylor Henning: The first time I was here, which is really hectic. I was here from 6:30 PM to about 5:30 in the morning. So that was very hectic.

John Ferguson: Yeah. New Year’s eve is pretty much the busiest day of the year for us. We have a full house of over usually 1200 or 1300 guests here. Everyone’s here to celebrate the New Year and partying. We have a lot of families. So there’s all matters of events going on and we need everyone to jump in and work long hours and Taylor’s does really great at it.

Anne Hudlow: You know I’m just blown away. Rick, I love hearing from Taylor and John’s reaction to how he’s doing in the workplace. This is just great. Thank you for this interview.

Rick Sizemore: My pleasure.

Anne Hudlow: Penni, you and Rick had a chance to go over and see Taylor’s work area and there is a very nice award hanging on the wall.

Penni Wetherell: Taylor is so very proud of his accomplishments, as he should be. But I think what touches my heart a lot too and what’s important and what probably motivates Taylor each and every day. Maybe if he’s having a bad day. Maybe he’s struggling, but Taylor was actually awarded what we call a Champion’s Award back in 2011 as was the Homestead. There were our Employer of the Year. We recognized them. We recognized Taylor for his achievements on that year. Taylor still has that award. It’s a plaque. He has that with him and I didn’t realize that until he brought that over.

Rick Sizemore: Penni, Taylor read the citation on the award, when I talked to him that him. It was very moving.

Taylor Henning: In commemoration of Disability Awareness Month, the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Service recognizes Taylor Henning. I won this back in May 15th of 2013.

Rick Sizemore: It’s a big deal and the fact that you still have that, where do you keep this award?

Taylor Henning: It’s on the wall and this is the first time its been off the wall since moving December, January, two years ago.

Penni Wetherell: That award meant a lot to Taylor. He worked very hard for that award. He deserved that.

Anne Hudlow: So Penni, after this initial success, what happened?

Penni Wetherell: They talked about job opportunities that were there. Some expansion they had done and their need for good employees. So that’s when I thought, “Wow, let’s have you all come to us over to the WWRC campus. That way you can tour our training programs. You can get an idea of what skillset our students have when they leave WWRC, and you can consider them for employment.” It was very interesting that day. The idea just flew out of my head, and they sat there and they looked at me at first and then everyone started talking at once. They were enthusiastic about it, they said, “When can we be there? We’d love to. How many hiring managers can come over?”

They were very enthusiastic about it. Totally onboard and we didn’t even talk about hiring individuals with disabilities. They’ve talked about hiring qualified candidates to work. So that was pretty exciting. I was very impressed with that. So obviously in the Fall of this year, they came over. They did tour our pogrom and oh my, very impressed. There was nothing that I could have told them that day that prepared them for what they actually saw here on the Woodrow campus.

So obviously came back for what we call the mini job fair, but wow the students that came over and expressed interest was amazing. It was an incredible. Jenny Lorenzo, who’s a member of the HR team. She is new to the team over there, but she has been instrumental-

Rick Sizemore: And she flies all over the world, looking for talent for Omni.

Penni Wetherell: Exactly.

Rick Sizemore: And Jenny’s standing by on Skype. Jenny, everyone is focused on measurable skill gains. Let’s start with what you consider to be one of Taylor’s strengths on the job.

Jenny Lorenzo: Taylor’s ability to remain organized and to kind of prioritize where his focus needs to be has been really beneficial in his success as well.

Rick Sizemore: Well, that’s awesome. So those measurable skill gains are occurring and they’re transitioning into that work and demonstrating those skills for you at Homestead.

Jenny Lorenzo: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Definitely. Yeah, a 100%. And I can say I think we probably wouldn’t have seen the gains that we have or even their ability to pick things up as quickly as they have without the additional support that’s been offered through the Workforce Center and through DARS.

Rick Sizemore: That is so awesome. The other thing we focus on is business engagement and we’ve talked with Penni Wetherell about the job fair. And as the talent acquisition manager, what are your thoughts on using the job fair as a way to connect workers with the available jobs you have at Homestead?

Jenny Lorenzo: I personally love that job fair that we had and I … Penni and I talk all the time about, “Okay, when’s the next one? When are we getting it on the calendar?” Because that for me, it’s so nice to be able to come to the consumers and to come to our prospective associates so that they don’t necessarily have to come to our property right away. You know, to be able to meet them in-person in an area where they’re comfortable, where they have their support team just readily there and accessible. It’s really nice, and I love the opportunities that we’ve had, to tour the facilities and to just see how some of the consumers have grown even in the past couple of times since I’ve been there.

It’s been really inspiring, truly, to see a lot of the progress that’s made and a lot of the programs that are offered and to see truly how much more successful and how many more opportunities exists for us to bring additional consumers onto our property as prospective new associates.

Rick Sizemore: Well, it seems to me that you offer a tremendous amount of support to someone considering employment there. Could you tell us about what it would be like to work at Homestead? Some of the benefits.

Jenny Lorenzo: Sure. So we really have a variety of benefits available, whether we’re talking about the kind of more standard insurance, medical, dental, vision to our Omni and Homestead specific benefits. So in regards to our associates in particular, anyone who works on property has the opportunity to participate in activities that we offer. So if we have one associate who wants to go zip lining, they’re able to participate in zip lining at a discount or no charge, depending on the business volume.

Separate from that, for our associates who live on property, which both of our associates, both Jason and Taylor, do live in our employee housing. We’ve built and created a real sense of community at that location and it’s nice because it’s less than a 10-minute walk from employee housing up to the property. We have a shuttle that runs up to the property as well. So if it’s raining or cold or you just don’t want to walk that day, you get to jump in the shuttle, ride with your fellow associates. Some people that you may get to see all the time or some people that you may get to see just every once in a while.

So we have that sense of community that we really focus on building within not only our Omni Homestead property, but we’re encouraging all of our associates to do anything they can to become a part of the larger Omni brand as well.

Rick Sizemore: Well, that’s a fantastic opportunity for someone who wants to get involve in a community and work at such a pristine and gorgeous location. I talked with Jason just before the job fair, and he already had his mind made up, “This is where I want to work.” And it’s exciting to hear that that’s come to fruition. His dad actually drove out for the interview, and I’m not sure who is happier, him or his dad that he was employed. I know when my oldest son got employed, that was … I said to my wife, “He’s got a job in healthcare so things are good, right?”

The focus in today’s world is on a good solid worker, not the fact that this is a person with the disability, but having said that, I’m just curious from your perspective, what it’s like working with individuals with disabilities?

Jenny Lorenzo: You know I think if you hadn’t told me that Taylor himself was an individual who had graduated from the Wilson Workforce Center, from their program, it would never have even crossed my mind. He has truly just fit in with our team here so seamlessly. And it’s been such a joy and a positive energy that he brings to the table and that he brings to the team here at the Omni Homestead. And so, I personally, I love it, and I think truly we need to as a community, we need to focus more so really on the individual and on the associate because regardless of what someone’s may be or may not be, we here at the Omni Homestead, we’re really fortunate and that the variety of opportunities that we have available are so vast. We can typically find a position that will work with someone or work for someone and be something that they’re interested in and that they receive fulfillment from.

Anne Hudlow: Thanks so much Jenny. Penni, sadly, we’re needing to wrap this up, but we would love any final thoughts that you have for us today.

Penni Wetherell: Wonderful to be able to use an employer like the Homestead as well-known as they are to small business to be able to promote hiring individuals with disabilities. It’s not about the disability anymore, it’s about the ability. And that’s where we’re focusing on here and obviously it’s working out well for everybody.

Anne Hudlow: This whole arrangement just sounds magical. You seem to really be loving your job.

Penni Wetherell: Oh wow, you just said the right word. Magic. And I think it’s going back using Taylor and using Jason and seeing this light in their eyes when they talk about their jobs. To me, that is an amazing feeling. I’ve never won the lottery before. I hardly ever play, but I can imagine what it must feel like because that’s how I feel when I am able to work with not only the consumers. In my position, I get to work with both. There’s just no better position than being a job placement counselor, where you actually get to meet and get to know fabulous people like Taylor and Jason and then you go over and you meet employers like the Homestead. And then, when there is indeed a match, and then you just see that light in their eyes when they talk about their job. That’s just what I live for, and it’s just indescribable and other than using the word magic and it’s really wonderful. And I think if I had to say the favorite part of my job is just seeing and feeling that magic

Rick Sizemore: That is wonderful. And I believe the essence of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act measure around business engagement, the stories are a critical piece of how we gauge that success. Congratulations on great success, and we wish you nothing but very best in the year ahead and thank you for being on the podcast, Penni.

Penni Wetherell: Thank you Rick. It’s my pleasure.

Anne Hudlow: Thank you for being here, Penni.

Thank you for joining us for today’s show. And thank you to our guest sponsor Omni’s Homestead Resort. If you’d like to know more about how to get involved, all of our contact information is in the show notes at Until next time. I’m Anne Hudlow.

Rick Sizemore: And I’m Rick Sizemore.

Anne Hudlow: With the courageous stories of vocational rehabilitation.

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