Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
John Shriver bucked national employment trends by remaining with the same employer for 30 years.
At the end of December 2022, Shriver retired from his job as a custodian at the Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center, a position that was made available to him through the Navigations Program, part of Goodwill Industries of Central Michigan Heartland, Inc
The Navigations program has been around since 1993 and originally went by the name ‘Ability One’. While the name was changed to better reflect the program’s mission, its purpose remains the same – to get people with varying degrees of disability into jobs that will enable them to support themselves, have confidence in themselves and take pride in what they accomplish every day.
“Staying anywhere for that length of time nowadays is unusual,” says Kenneth Bauer, President and CEO of GICMH of Shriver. “John said to me, ‘I really loved this experience, and I don’t know what life will be like after I leave.’ He’s now made that call. To go down there and see a guy who that job meant so much to and knowing he’s leaving, it was hard.”
Shriver signed on with Navigations after relocating from Tennessee to Battle Creek. He wanted to find work.
“A counselor I was seeing through the (Department of Health and Human Services) hooked me up with Goodwill,” he says.
Shriver had been seeing the counselor to get help with his diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which is considered a disability under the guidelines established within Navigations. While disabilities are often considered a liability for those seeking employment, this is not the case with Navigations, which contracts with local, state, and federal governmental units to have their employees work at government-owned facilities.
“Seventy percent of work has to be done by persons with disabilities,” says Bill Mullens, Vice President of Navigations. He went on to share that Navigations was created as a sister organization to the local Goodwill Industries to better serve this population. We are fortunate to have great partners in the Federal Center and the Fort Custer Educational Center.”
John Shriver, left, and Mark Hauler, at Goodwill Central Michigan Heartland's Financial Opportunity Center in downtown Battle Creek
“John started when the program started,” says Mark Hauler, Custodial Supervisor with Navigations.
Shriver says his first job involved cleaning offices used by GICMH for about three hours each day.
“I did such a bang-up job, that they wanted me to come to the Federal Center to work,” he says. He didn’t require a lot of training because he had done custodial work at a previous job in a hospital in Florida.
“If you come with experience, that’s great,” Mullens says. “We don’t require specific training per se. You have to be 18 or older, and be able to pass an extensive Homeland Security background check. You’ve got to be willing to work in all climates, be able to operate equipment like snowblowers, shovels, and salters, and lift up to 50 pounds. As long as you have the ability and willingness to learn, we can absolutely train you. The goal here is to have these people be able to work.”
There are currently 17 individuals with various disabilities working at either the Federal Center or Fort Custer Military Base’s Education Center. In addition to janitorial work, they do landscaping, which includes laying mulch and brush trimming, as well as disinfecting and changing linens. Mullens says that the remainder of his 20-person staff is managers or supervisors and that the optimal number of individuals with disabilities employed through the program is 20.
“There’s a lot to it for these folks. They’re running a lot of equipment,” Mullens says. “They’re pretty independent folks who take pride in their work.”
Throughout his 30-year career, Shriver says he always felt supported and knew that if he needed guidance, he would get it.
“A lot of employers will just say, ‘That’s part of your job’, but that’s not the way Mark treated me. A lot of jobs don’t do that,” he says.
“You’re not a number or just an ‘anybody’ to us,” Hauler says, adding that he tries to give employees the tools to succeed, no matter what their disability is. "But, there are no free passes.”
The importance of opportunity
“Everybody has an underlying disability, but I expect them to do the job. I have high standards and these guys respect that,” Hauler says.
However, the federal entities where they work also have expectations. “Our people meet that threshold all the time and do a wonderful job. Most of those people are really happy and recognize it’s a great job. They’re proud of each other’s accomplishments.” Bauer says.
John Shriver is about to retire after 30 years employed through Goodwill Central Michigan Heartland.
Shriver says many of his co-workers became his friends — he counts Hauler among this group, despite being given tasks that were outside of his comfort zone.
Hauler says he assigned Shriver cleaning tasks that he hadn’t done before and that enabled him to grow his skill set while increasing his confidence.
“I had John do a COVID clean, which is something he hadn’t done before,” Hauler says. “Any type of detailed clean, John was doing it. We had inspections once a month at the Federal Center and if there were any problems, John fine-tuned them all. It helped to have him do detailed cleaning in high-traffic or highly-visible areas.”
After having done his share of custodial jobs, Hauler says he knows it can get monotonous, but it helps to challenge yourself or switch up the cleaning routine.
“Doing something like this consistently, it takes a special person to do that,” Hauler says. “It’s a thankless job and 9 out of 10 times if you hear something, it’s negative. Personal pride is the key, I think what John’s not saying is what a good work ethic he’s had instilled in him. He does take personal pride in his work and that goes a long way.”
That work ethic and sense of pride began when Shriver found himself washing windows for teachers at the school he was attending at the age of 13. Two years later he was working at a silk-screening company owned by his sister-in-law. He also worked at a steel-polishing company in Illinois that was owned by his father.
“My mom was working. She did what she could and I wanted to keep up with the times and have nice clothes,” Shriver says.
As he grew into adulthood, those initial reasons for working expanded to include paying rent and having food on the table. It was important, he said, to have some financial independence so that he could support himself. He credits his wife Marilyn for the stability she has given to him during his time as an employee with Navigations and said that her support was, and continues to be, invaluable.
John Shriver sits with Mark Hauler as they discuss John's semi-retirement.
“Earning a living and having that independence is important,” Shriver says. “I am not always a secure person, but working and all of that helps me focus and provides stability. There were days when I didn’t like what I was doing, but I knew people like Mark trusted me, and I appreciated that I didn’t have anybody looking over my shoulder all of the time. A lot of people are down and all that because someone is on them all the time. I knew they trusted me.”
Bauer says that Navigations shows people with disabilities that they are valued. One of the first places he visited 14 years ago when he became President and CEO, was the Federal Center to see how the program was working for the employees.
“Even at that time, there were a lot of people with decent tenure. It’s because these are good jobs, in a really historic and visible building in Battle Creek, and they enjoy making that facility look as good as it does,” Bauer says.
He went on to say that the Navigations program is “huge for the folks that have disabilities because they have good and well-paying jobs, they’re supported in this environment, they’ve got a lot of resources to support them, and can get out and work and not have to rely on government subsidies. We have a great environment and support around here.”
This is what led Shriver to ask if he could come back on a part-time basis after he officially retired.
“I have a list of things to give John that I want done,” Hauler said with a smile.