Geno Dogans shows the camera his “E.T.” finger as he stands behind the counter at Thrive Community Fitness. He uses his amiable personality to make customers feel welcome as they walk in; he got his job there through the county’s work program for adults with developmental disabilities. Photo by Laura Guido/Whidbey News-Times

Island County program successful at placing people with disabilities in jobs

If Geno Dogans is behind the counter, anyone who walks into Oak Harbor’s Thrive Community Fitness on a Tuesday or Friday afternoon is greeted with a wave, a warm “hello” and a thumb’s up.

He knows almost everyone’s name who walks through the door.

As a result of a traumatic brain injury sustained when he was 6, Dogans, 29, can’t use much of the exercise equipment himself. He received the injury from his father, who went to jail for child abuse. Dogans was in a coma for two months and had to use a wheelchair when he first came home.

Dogans can walk without a wheelchair now, but his movement is limited by the partial paralysis of his left side and a discrepancy in the length of his legs.

However, this doesn’t stop him from pausing his Whidbey News-Times interview to walk across Starbucks to greet people he knows who walk in—and he knows a lot of people.

“Going into the grocery store with Geno can be an event,” said Gina Riffel, who became Dogans’ foster mom when he was 7 years old.

Greeting customers at Thrive is his favorite part of his job, though he said he even loves cleaning the equipment. He got his position through Island County’s work program for adults with developmental disabilities.

The county contracts with different agencies that specialize in placing adults with developmental disabilities in jobs that suit their interests, skills and abilities.

Dogans’ successful job placement isn’t rare in the area. Island County is one of only 10 counties in the state with over 70 percent of working-age, defined as between 21 and 61, adults with disabilities who want jobs earning at least minimum wage.

“It’s a compliment to our community and specifically business owners who see the value and see that we’re a stronger community when we’re employing all those who have the skills to move us forward,” said Mike Etzell, developmental disabilities program coordinator.

Dogans first became employed through the county’s school-to-work program. Island County is the only county in the state to have 100 percent success in this program.

Individuals with developmental disabilities can go to school until age 21 and enter a three year transition program. During the last year of the transition program, interested students and their families can work with the county to find employment.

This is the fourth academic year of the program, and an average of 6 or 7 students typically participate, said Etzell.

Etzell said he expects that number will rise as more people learn about it.

He said the county is working to help individuals and families understand the “concept that employment is a realistic goal,” so that they “believe in that and work towards that.”

Dogans works two days a week for two hours at a time. He said his feet get tired by the end of the day, but he always brings a lot of energy when it comes to interacting with the customers.

Dogans said he loves encouraging the people working out, cheering “you can do it!”

Beyond working, Dogans stays heavily involved in the community. He is treasurer for the Island County chapter of People First, a nonprofit that advocates for people with disabilities.

“I’m really good with money,” Dogans said.

He also volunteers at the Family Bible Church, helping to provide childcare during the women’s bible study class. He is an avid Seahawks fan and often watches the games on TV with his roommate of eight years. He participates in the Special Olympics in bowling and track and field.

“He has a very full and satisfying life and his job is part of it— it’s a big part of it,” said Riffel.

Dogan said his job has enhanced his quality of life, and his advice for others who have disabilties and want a job is simply “go for it.”