Sorting through life: How a Millinocket man transformed his disability into a job

Corey Alley, 37, of Millinocket might not know it, but he is changing the way others view the aptitude of people with disabilities. Despite the fact that he has a severe intellectual disability and resides in a place with an unemployment rate of more than 16 percent, he has a job.

Though Corey can’t respond directly to questions about how he started Alley’s Recycling, he happily flipped through a photo album recently — with pictures showing him picking up recyclables and sorting them at the local transfer station. He smiled a lot.

Corey lives with a roommate, rents from a landlord, has work that he enjoys, is a member of the local snowmobile club and volunteers at a local thrift store. Instead of spending his time in a group home with other people with disabilities, he has integrated himself into his town. It happened because those providing him with support decided to think differently.

“We try to see what we’ve seen, what everyone else has seen, and think in ways that no one has thought about people,” explained Gail Fanjoy, executive director of Katahdin Friends Incorporated, which works, primarily in Penobscot County, to connect people with disabilities to their communities like everyone else. People with intellectual disabilities are referred to the organization through the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, and its funding comes from Medicaid. For those seeking employment, the Bureau of Rehabilitation Services provides funding.

The idea may seem obvious: Supporting people to live as independently as possible is good for their well being and can be more cost-effective over the long term. But in Maine, efforts by providers are not uniform. Few make it a routine practice to take the time needed to learn a person’s skills and desires — when they are often not readily apparent — and fit those abilities to a need within a community to create a job.

Corey Alley unloads a haul of cardboard from a local business at a Millinocket recycling center on Friday, January 25, 2013. BDN | Carter F. McCall.

But that is what KFI does. It finds ways for people who have a disability — whether their diagnosis is Down syndrome, Asperger syndrome or an intellectual disability (which is now the preferred term for mental retardation) — to contribute to the place in which they live.

When KFI staff members first start the process of helping someone find employment, they undertake what’s called discovery. They analyze the person’s regular schedule, talk to family and friends and try to figure out where the person is at his or her best. In Corey’s case, staff realized he loved Wednesdays.

Why? That was the day he usually took recyclables to the transfer station, Fanjoy said. But it wasn’t necessarily the recycling he enjoyed. He loved the process of sorting things. But the town of Millinocket wasn’t hiring people for the transfer station. Staff checked with another, private operation. It wasn’t hiring either.

Corey Alley unloads a haul of cardboard from a local business at a Millinocket recycling center on Friday, January 25, 2013. BDN | Carter F. McCall.

So KFI helped Corey start his own business. They realized that with no single-stream recycling in town, Corey could provide a value-added service. They advertised and, over time, found four businesses and eight residential customers. His clients don’t have to store their recycling in different bins — one for glass, one for paper, one for cardboard. They pile it all together, and Corey picks up all the items, brings them to the transfer station and does the sorting himself.

KFI staff learned along the way. For example, paper money doesn’t mean much to Corey; it’s not real to him. So in order to motivate him to work, staff decided that instead of emphasizing the monetary earnings, they would emphasize what the money would buy. His incentive? Vacations — such as to the Bangor State Fair and Funtown Splashtown USA.

“He needed to see that money is a tool,” said Jan Moore, Corey’s supported living facilitator.

And he has. He’s been doing the work for six years. But it’s more than a job, of course. It’s part of his lifeline to Millinocket, where he is widely known.

“Everywhere I go, it’s, ‘Corey, how’re you doing?’” said Maynard Robinson, Corey’s job coach. He drives Corey to each location to pick up the recyclables.

Corey Alley waits for his KFI job coach Maynard Robinson to secure cardboard in the back of their truck during a routine recycling pick up on Friday, January 25, 2013. BDN | Carter F. McCall.

The story of how Robinson got involved in KFI highlights another outcome of integrating people with disabilities into their communities: It’s not just the people with disabilities who benefit.

Robinson was a truck driver, did underground construction and operated heavy machinery before he decided to partially retire. “My wife said, ‘No you’re not,’” he joked. Through word of mouth, he heard KFI was looking for an advocate and decided to apply, not knowing what to expect.

It turned out he was just what KFI was looking for: someone with a variety of experiences and connections in the community, who could see people’s abilities. He said the first time he met Corey, he introduced himself, and Corey looked at him and waited. Then Corey spoke.

“Headie,” he said, assigning the new name to Robinson.

Only it wasn’t new. Headie was the nickname of Robinson’s grandfather who had been dead for decades.

“It just blew me right away,” Robinson said. “How did he know?”

The encounter helped him understand he was in the right place and was doing something important — not just for Corey but for those who would have the honor to meet him.

Corey Alley throws up a peace sign to a friend after his last cardboard collecting run on Friday, January 25, 2013. BDN | Carter F. McCall.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is a writer and storyteller. As editorial page editor of the Bangor Daily News, she writes the newspaper's opinion on matters from Kittery to Fort Kent.