Posted On: January 31, 2020
Living in the small, rural community of Altamont, Illinois, Blair Dammerman didn’t grow up among classmates or peers with disabilities. She nonetheless developed a keen desire to serve others, a quality inspired primarily within her own family.
“My mother worked in an office setting her entire life, but her passion was helping people,” Blair remembers. “Honestly, the experiences I had when I went with her to Special Olympics events really solidified things for me.”
The rewarding nature of working with Special Olympics participants steered Blair toward a career in disability, but finding her own niche within that field took time. After graduating from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology, Blair took a job working with traumatic brain injury patients. It was during this time that a coworker first turned her on to the idea of becoming a certified Vocational Rehabilitation counselor.
So Blair eventually enrolled in graduate school at Michigan State University, the nation’s top program for Vocational Rehabilitation counseling. Upon completion of a rigorous curriculum and grueling 600-hour internship with Michigan Vocational Rehabilitation Services, Blair earned her Master’s Degree and became a certified VR counselor. However, she couldn’t help feeling a sense of limitation, like there was more she could offer clients.
“I wanted to do something that would give me much more of an ability to be flexible and creative,” Blair reflects. “I wanted to cut through the red tape and do what needs to be done; meet clients where they are.”
In addition to her VR internship, Blair was able to serve students with disabilities through her involvement with a trio of other programs at Michigan State. She worked as a Project/Research coordinator for three unique but interconnected programs geared toward transition-aged youth on the autism spectrum: ASSET (Assistive Social Skills and Employment Training), EPASS (Employment Preparation and Application Skills Support), and Project SEARCH.
The first two initiatives are designed to help these students develop soft skills and job readiness. Project SEARCH, which operates at hundreds of sites across the nation and world, including Michigan State, provides internships and immersive work experiences for individuals with intellectual disabilities.
While she learned a great deal and believed strongly in the mission of these programs, Blair felt somewhat bogged down by paperwork, like there was more she could offer closer to the front lines of direct service.
“It was pretty research-heavy while I was at Michigan State. I was doing a lot of administrative and background work, but I really wanted to find something a little more client-focused and hands-on,” Blair recalls. “I was looking for something that would provide more fulfillment … something that would allow me to interact more with students and their parents.”
One day, Blair stumbled upon SDI’s job announcement on Indeed, and she knew she had to apply. After going through the interview process and getting to know Lori Becker and Brian Chao, the COO and CFO, respectively, she quickly realized the youth programs at Starkloff offered the balanced blend of administrative responsibility and personal interaction she had been looking for.
Lori said Blair’s credentials clearly distinguished her from the crowd.
“Blair stood out because of her experience in research, program management, and direct practice at Michigan State University,” Lori explained. “Combined with her passion for the cause, she was an ideal candidate to lead all of our efforts in youth programs.”
In addition to the promise of the position itself, the job location was appealing as well.
“St. Louis has been a spot I’ve wanted to get back to because my family is pretty close to here,” Blair says. “Growing up, I kind of romanticized St. Louis as the big city, so I want to see what it’s all about.”
As Youth Programs Manager, Blair will be responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations of DREAM BIG and Access U, two of SDI’s newest and most promising initiatives. Eager to continue SDI’s recent momentum, Blair sees a world of potential in the youth transition services at Starkloff.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for growth with these programs,” Blair observes. “They’re pretty young, and I think it’s really enticing for a young professional to come in with a lot of energy and help an organization like Starkloff grow and expand. It’s really exciting.”