Tiffany Absher, April Alford, Dee Anne Brooks, Denny Brooms, Amanda Craig, Barbara Edwards, Oscar Flores, Charlene Guynn, Danyale Lundy, Matt Miller, Melissa Nester, Rebecca Nester, Don Newberry, Katie Newman, Rebecca Oakes, Lisa Patton, Thomas Smith, Crystal Vaughan, Corey Williams, and Kelly Williams.

A spring morning in Hillsville, VA found a group gathered in the training room of Virginia’s Southwestern Virginia Training Center (SWVTC), a state facility, serving people with developmental challenges. Nineteen employees and one private sector attendee from Wall Residences were selected to participate in the Virginia Public Sector Leader I (VPSL I) program.
This program was specifically designed for our facility, and led by Leisha G. LaRiviere, Associate Director SPIA (Richmond Campus). LaRiviere partnered with Patricia Bullion, Staff Development Director, SWVTC and Dennis Shrewsberry, Director, SWVTC in various training elements of the program.

The majority of those attending the VPSL I program from SWVTC were there because of a shared uncertain future. All the training centers, with the exception of Southeastern Virginia Training Center in Chesapeake, will be closed by 2020. The closure of the Virginia Training Centers stems from an agreement entered into by the Department of Justice and the Commonwealth of Virginia. SWVTC’s closure date is June 2018. Staffs at SWVTC are not only preparing the individuals that resides at SWVTC for their move into the community due to this closure, but they are also preparing themselves for future employment in an area that is known for job scarcity.

Throughout the week, class attendees found themselves challenged on both a personal level and as a group.

“Not knowing what to expect, I approached this class solely to find information and methods for leadership that I could use with my current position as a volunteer with the Fries Community Center,” said Denny Brooms, Direct Support Professional. “I learned through the class that leadership is not going to be found in a single volume…but is a conglomerate formed through experiences and time. The skills learned and management tools developed in the VPSL strengthen our leadership capacities. ”

Tasks included self-assessments of personality types and preferences, discussing organizational vision and mission as drivers of the manager-leader continuum, developing personal statements, and learning the fundamentals of risk management and total quality management. Participants were introduced to several skills and tools related to fiscal management, project management, and strategic planning. One of the full-group projects during the week was to envision, design, and propose a hypothetical program. The group was also tasked to put their new environmental scanning tools to work, conduct a SWOC (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and challenges) analysis and a stakeholder analysis of the program. The team proposed a mentoring program intended to help their peers and coworkers face the inevitable job-loss in the coming year. Feeling hopeful, with renewed energy, someone exclaimed, “we could actually do this.” And thus, the G.R.I.T. (Guiding Retrospect Into Tomorrow) Mentoring program was born.

Tiffany Absher, Barbara Edwards, Charlene Guynn, Matt Miller, Rebecca Nester, Katie Newman, Tom Smith, Crystal Vaughan, and Corey Williams.

Staff Development Director, Patricia Bullion, expressed her enthusiasm for the VPSL program, the G.R.I.T. Mentoring project, and mentoring in general: “Mentoring in the workplace has numerous benefits, as employees become more self-directed and develop stronger communication and problem-solving skills they are more engaged. This allows the organization to become more creative and focus its attention on the most effective method of quality service delivery. Mentored employees also value collaboration and sharing of information, leading to increased confidence, and a less stressful work environment.”

Before the program’s launch, approval from Dennis Shrewsberry, Director of SWVTC, as well as SWVTC’s Quality Improvement Council (QIC) would be needed. On April 24 the members who were going to be actively involved in G.R.I.T. were made aware that their presentation to QIC would take place on the morning of May 17. The timeline was tight, but members were up for the challenge despite their personal workloads and varying schedule times.

During this time frame, Project Coordinators were selected to include: Tiffany Absher, Matt Miller, Katie Newman, Tom Smith, and Crystal Vaughan. Ten VPSL I graduates agreed to be mentors.

Newman and Vaughan presented the G.R.I.T. Mentoring proposal to the Quality Improvement Council on May 17; they were joined by Matt Miller, Rebecca Nester, Tom Smith, Danyale Lundy, Corey Williams, Kelly Williams, Charlene Guynn, and Tiffany Absher to help answer questions from the QIC members. After the presentation, approval was received from the council as well as from Dennis Shrewsberry, Director, SWVTC. Shrewsberry shared his approval of the proposal: “With the challenges we currently are facing, I can’t imagine a better time and place for establishing a mentoring program. I am very grateful to the Project Team and the VPSL Program for having the vision to sense the need and take the initiative to capitalize on the opportunity it presents for our facility.”

According to Leisha LaRiviere, the success of the group’s mentoring initiative merges with efforts put forth during the course. “Whether analyzing budget shortfalls or conducting environmental scans, each person demonstrated high interest and a willingness to learn. The SWVTC group was motivated and engaged in the curriculum, quickly adapting newly-minted project management skills for their innovative mentoring program design. Virginia Tech is honored to work with the VPSL team as they move forward to implementation.”

In the upcoming weeks and months each SWVTC mentors will be taking on one interested mentee and helping them with the goal(s) they have chosen for themselves. The G.R.I.T. Mentoring Program will also be offering group classes and mentoring sessions in order to help a larger number of interested SWVTC staff. The mentoring team hopes for success at the facility campus, and growth into the region, and in to the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Service facilities across the Commonwealth.

The idea launched during the Virginia Tech’s School of Public Administration and Affairs Virginia Public Sector Leader I leadership development certificate program is now a fully-conceptualized program. The program’s creators hope to see mentoring grow as a way to ‘pay it forward.’ Each VPSL attendee was grateful for the experience and the knowledge that they gained from participating in the VPSL I program. In the words of Rebecca Oakes, Administrative Specialist, SWVTC “The VPSL I program was more than just a class. It had a way of making you search deep within yourself, enabling new skills to better help others.”

The Virginia Public Sector Leader (VPSL) program is a leadership development certificate program of Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA). The VPSL is one of an array of leadership and professional programs in SPIA’s learning portfolio. THE VPSL is organized in three levels for the current manager (Level I), emerging leader (Level II), and organization executive (Level III), and intended for public agencies and nonprofits. Each VPSL program features specifically-designed curriculum developed by Virginia Tech School of Public and International Affairs faculty members in tandem with partnering agencies. Since 2015, more than 270 leaders in the Commonwealth have participated in the VPSL learning program. For more information on the VPSL program, please contact Leisha LaRiviere

By line: Crystal Vaughan 
Community Integration Transition Project Leader
Southwestern Virginia Training Center