The Vocational Independence Program (VIP) is located in an inconspicuous building on a quiet street in Flint, Michigan. It’s fitting that its workers are some of the many unsung heroes of Flint, because the nondescript backdrop of the VIP belies the incredibly important work that happens inside.
“The counselors and drivers that we represent at the VIP are critical to the success of Genesee County residents who have special needs,” said Nina Bugbee, Local 332 President and Health Care Division Director. “We want our workers there to be happy and thriving not just because of their dedication to improving people’s lives, but also because of their dedication to improving the entire community.”
The mission of the VIP is to help Genesee County residents with special needs become as independent and integrated into their communities as they possibly can. To that end, one of the most important services resources provided by the VIP is their employment skills training and placement into full-time jobs. Attendees of the VIP (referred to as “persons served”) work in a variety of places, including a race track, an auto plant, restaurants, grocery stores and a number of other businesses throughout the area. Local 332 Shop Steward Rebecca Schultz has worked at the VIP for over 40 years as a counselor. She was part of the organizing drive when the counselors and drivers first organized back in 2002.
“Teamsters have helped mission of the organization by advocating for the counselors and persons served,” said Schultz. “I enjoy the solidarity and security, and it’s reassuring to know that the union supports you.”
Pam Marme is also a shop steward at the VIP. She has worked there for over thirty years as a bus driver, taking persons served to and from the VIP. Marme said that the persons served, along with their parents and guardians, are very grateful for the bus service that the organization provides because it is the most reliable transportation available and that attendees of the VIP enjoy taking the bus.
“Our persons served are some of the most loving, caring people,” said Marme. “They are great to work with, and they are very appreciative of the service that we provide. They are all friends and during the bus ride they make weekend plans, hang out, talk, laugh. It’s their social time.”
The VIP is publicly funded, and one of the more challenging moments in its history came a few years ago, when the center was threatened by budget cuts. The response from persons served, along with their parents and guardians, was inspiring. Schultz said that they made the case for the VIP at hearings throughout the county where the budget cuts were being discussed publicly.
“The community needs and likes these programs,” said Schultz. “For a long time, this was the only place where our persons served could go to the learn skills and become an active part of our community. For a lot our persons served, this program is the most important part of their lives.”
The state heard loud and clear from the people who defended the VIP, and it stayed open. The positive impact the VIP has had on Genesee County and the City of Flint can be seen everywhere in the area to this day.
“It feels good to see our persons served achieve new skills and get a job,” said Schultz. “I go shopping and see my former persons served bagging groceries, I say hi to them. It’s fulfilling to see their progress. It takes time, but they accomplish so much.”