New episodes of the Penny Forward podcast will return on September 12th. In the meantime, we’re rerunning some of our most popular episodes from season 1. We hope you enjoy this interview with Eric Yarberry, director of education and training at World Services for the Blind. Eric is totally blind himself and oversees a number of career training programs at WSB that have helped 85 percent of graduates find meaningful jobs. For more information, visit wsblind.org. We also discuss how to avoid identity theft by keeping your wallet or purse clean. A full text transcript of this episode is available at https://pennyforward.com/penny-forward-transcript-episode-31-eric-yarberry/ The Penny Forward podcast is about blind people building bright futures one penny at a time. Subscribe by searching for “Penny Forward” using your favorite podcast app, ask your smart speaker to play the podcast, “Penny Forward”, check out the Penny Forward YouTube channel, or listen to all of our past episodes or read transcripts at https://pennyforward.com
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to learn more about who we are, and what we do. Join us now, as we get to know people like us, who are working towards their own success. Here is your host, Chris Peterson.
Chris: My guest today is Eric Yarberry. He's the director of education for World Services for the Blind, and he's gonna talk to us a little bit about himself, he's blind, and a little about World Services for the Blind, for those of us who are unfamiliar with it, and also about some of the training programs that they have available that are related to finance.
Chris: Eric, thanks for being here.
Eric: Thanks for having me, Chris. I really appreciate it, having an opportunity to spotlight World Services for the Blind and share what we do with your followers. A little bit about myself, I grew up in Little Rock Arkansas, down here in the south, I do have a southern accent. I'm a big outdoorsman, love to hunt, fish, and I love jujitsu. I've been grappling my entire life, wrestling, and I attended the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and graduated with my bachelor’s in English and my masters in professional and technical writing. And then I earned the job as the director of Education and Training here at World Services for the Blind, and just wrapped up my third year.
Chris: Well congratulations. That's pretty great. Was that your first job out of college?
Eric: So my first job out of college was actually at the Lighthouse for the Blind to pay my rent. I needed a little help between my Batcheler's degree and my master’s degree. And on my brakes, I worked on my application for grad school. Walked in in June and told them I was gonna be out the door in December, this was just something to pay the rent and save for tuition, and then in January, I was at the university as a grad student teaching in a comp 101 class.
Chris: Oh, okay. So you had a little bit of work experience before coming to WSB, that's cool. And tell us a little bit about your family life. You're married, right? Do you have any kids or anything?
Eric: I don't have any kids, I've been married for, it will be three years in September this year. I've got an awesome Leader Dog. His name's Hank, and I've had him for just two years now and he'll be four. He's the baby of the family. My wife is just fine with him.
Chris: Is your wife blind also?
Eric: My wife is not blind. We met at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. We've been together six years now. So, that's kind of a cool story. We met in a bar, our first date was in a bar, and so it was a true blind date. I tell people I saw her from across the room.
Chris: That's funny. I like that. Well tell us how you came to be then at World Services for the Blind, and give us a little overview of what it is that they do.
Eric: Yeah. So, I've been working with World Services for the Blind for over five years now. I started as an instructor for the college prep program in 2015. Actually it's six years now. Wow. So my first year teaching the college prep program, we had thirty blind and visually impaired students who were getting close to graduating high school, or had graduated that summer, and who all finished a college course at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Our college prep program's coming up here in July, and we're doing that remotely and in person, and we're glad to have the partnership with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, to help get individuals the skills they need to be successful in college. I worked with that program for about three years, and then I moved up as the Director of Education and Training. And I still oversee that program, and that program is very near and dear to me.
Chris: Thirty students a year about, that program serves?
Eric: Prior to Covid, we were serving about 30 students a year. So far this year, I've got 12 on the roster. That's not bad, and I anticipate that to go up a little bit. Of course, we're coming out of Covid, but that program I anticipate will get back up to 30 next year.
Chris: And do you end up following any of those students after they leave the program to find out what becomes of them?
Eric: Absolutely. One of my favorite ... I love following all their stories. One of my favorite ones is an individual who took a break after school, he lives up in Illinois, and actually, he works for McGraw Hill and does accessibility work for them now. And it's cool to see where he started and where he wound up.
Chris: That's cool. I love that.
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Chris: So tell me about some of the other things that World Services for the Blind does, for those of us who may not be as familiar as we want to be with the organization.
Eric: So the World Services for the Blind mission is to provide sustainable independence to individuals in the US and around the world who are blind and visually impaired. Our primary programs are vocational training. We do comprehensive blindness training for individuals who need live skills training. That includes activities of daily living, orientation and mobility, braille, adult education, financial literacy, obvious, 'cause this podcast, I loved financial literacy, and then assistive technology and keyboarding. So, we cover the basics, but our focus at World Services for the Blind is our career training programs. So our primary focus is our career training programs at World Services for the Blind. We boast an 85 percent employment rate among successful graduates of our vocational programs. We work very hard to make sure our students are actually going back to work and focused on going back to work.
Chris: Eighty-five percent, you said.
Chris: That is amazing! Tell us how you achieve that.
Eric: The environment that World Services for the Blind has really fosters that focus on that next step. That next chapter. I tell people that in order to actually find a job, finding a job is a full time job. So when students get here, their focus when they hit the door, is they know they're gonna be leaving World Services for the Blind at some point. If students have come from another training center to here, who have gotten those soft skills, we're looking at, "Okay, you've got your independence. You need to be looking at getting a job. If you're not interested in getting a job, let's address that." Most of the time we're working with vocational rehabilitation counselors. We're very transparent. Transparency is key among me and all of our staff, our instructors, our case manager, social worker, where everything that we do here is related back to the vocational rehabilitation counselor, and the client's very aware of their current standing, and so is the counselor. So, I'd say communication is key. In making sure that students know what the next step is, and what they need to get there.
Chris: That's really important. I remember coming out of college, and getting the education wasn't so hard, but figuring out how to connect it to an actual paying job was very difficult. I don't think I got resume writing and interviewing and things like that exactly the way that I could have. Is that stuff that you offer in your training programs?
Eric: Absolutely. Every one of our training career programs, students receive work force development services. So they learn how to write a resume, not just a general resume, but tailor it to every job they apply for. That's the key. And then they also learn interviewing skills. We do mock interviews. Even before they go into a program, we do an interview, and then the individual has to do a presentation to a small group of their peers, and state why they want to go into that career, and what attracts them to that. Rather than us just pushing them along. That's not what I'm interested in. And I know that everyone out there, there is something for everyone, and it's just a matter of finding it. And if they're not sure, we'll work with them to find a career that they're interested in.
Chris: Do you have employers that you specifically work with to try to match people up with jobs or internships or things like that?
Eric: So, because we serve all fifty states, we work really closely with the vocational counselor, and we make sure that we know what skills an individual has and what skills they need to become employed. If they're getting close to the end of a program, we'll start looking at internships. I think internships are really how you get into a job. Especially being blind or visually impaired, unfortunately, we are actually putting out a blog pretty soon about the barriers to employability if you're blind or visually impaired. And some of those things are just education, or lack thereof, by the employer. And really, it starts with you. Who do you know? Who do we know? And we branch out from there. That includes our board, so it's really just a network of people who are willing to take on an intern who is blind or visually impaired. And I say "willing" because after the 90 days, they're not gonna want to let the student go. I mean at that point, they've trained somebody to do a job, and that's really what I see most prevalently among our graduates. Is they get into a job through an internship, and then the employer says, "Hey, you're really taking a lot off of our plates, and we want to keep you around.
Chris: That's really great.
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Chris: Do you keep your whole life in your wallet, or your purse? That may not be such a good idea. If your wallet got stolen, this has actually happened to me, or your purse, you could be giving away your personally identifiable information, and that could lead to identity theft. Keep in mind that you should never store your passport, or your social security card, in your wallet. It's also a good idea to only hang on to one or two credit cards that you use frequently. That way, you have fewer cards to close if your wallet is stolen. Also, keep an inventory of what you keep in your wallet so that you know exactly who to call, if something happens. Again, this has happened to me. And it can be very disruptive if you don't know what's in your wallet.
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Chris: I'm stuck on this eighty-five percent. Because we often hear the statistic that 70 percent or 80 percent of blind and visually impaired people are unemployed.
Chris: So you're doing something right there. And have you figured out what the right is? Or ... And did it come all at once or did you have to work up to that?
Eric: No, I think we're still trying to figure it out. Every time I look at that 85 percent, I wonder if it's actually correct. And then I go back to the board, we look at our spreadsheet, we look at our numbers, and it's 85, above, it's right around there. And that's what we say. And when I first started, I was like, "That's high!" But it wasn't high. And I think the reason it is that is because when students come through our doors, the ones who aren't willing to go to work, or if they're not willing to step away from the disability support, social security checks, that's what we start talking about. Are they here just for a fun time? If that's the case, we've got to have a conversation about that. We want individuals who are motivated, who are ready to actually get out there and find a job, find employment, because that motivation, that attitude, is going to impact their peers. So we see students who really aren't motivated, and one bad apple spoils the bunch. That's really true. Especially in an institutional environment. We are a residential center, and we can house up to fifty at a time, right now we've got about 25 on campus. But, like I said, we've got to make sure that their attitude, ... they stay positive. And especially for individuals who've just lost their vision, navigating that mindset is challenging. It's tough. We provide counseling services here, so there's always the awareness of mindfulness and making sure that individuals know what they're here for. And that negativity doesn't seep into the whole group.
Chris: At the risk of causing a lot of controversy here, do you know how you compare to other centers of the kind?
Eric: So World Services for the Blind does offer life skills, and the comprehensive blindness training. That's not our wheelhouse. We know that a lot of individuals go to other training centers for life skills training, but we're more focused on the vocational side. We do provide those skills if they need to gap areas, and we do have those, but I think that our strength shines out in the crowd for sure, 'cause there is no other agency like us that provides the vocational training of the wide variety of programs that we do. That's our strong suit. We are very ... We're not competitive with other agencies; we communicate very closely with the heads of other agencies to support their graduates who are looking to go into vocational training who have the life skills training. So, no controversy for sure. We just make sure that students who come in here actually want to go to work, and want to go back into the work force, or to the work force, for that matter.
Chris: Well that's terrific. And I'm entirely honest when I say that I'm still stunned by the 85 percent number.
Eric: It's shocking. I agree.
Eric: I agree.
Chris: And yet, I hope you can improve on it, 'cause every little bit helps. So, talk more about the specific training programs that you have that are related to finance. cause some really interesting things, and finance, I think, is probably a very accessible career. cause it's all just numbers, right?
Eric: Yeah. I'd agree. The nerd in me, I love to look at excel spreadsheets. A good Excel spreadsheet goes a long way. That's a lot of fun. And I think that's very accessible. I am nearly totally blind myself. I have some light perception, and some shadows and kind of things like that, and I use NVDA and Jaws as screen readers. But as far as our financial courses, so our pre-vocational course is our financial literacy course. Not just blind or visually impaired individuals, but everybody can benefit from financial literacy. And I think just knowing how to budget, how to manage your household, know what's coming in, what's going out, is very crucial to being successful. 'Cause if you've got a job, you're gonna be bringing in money, and you've got to know how to manage that. If you spend all of your money that you've earned from your job, eventually you'll go into overdraft, eventually, you know, you're gonna end up spiraling out of control, and then we wind up at square one. So it's important that you not only leave World Services for the Blind with an area in career training, but you also leave with financial literacy. So career training programs that we offer that tie to finance, our biggest one is our credit counselor program. We partner with the National Association of Credit Counselors based out of Florida, and that program is roughly a six-to-nine-month program. It is offered online. A lot of our courses are. That program has multiple certifications. It's got financial health coach, credit counselor, student loans specialist, housing specialist, and debt settlement specialist. So just the basic certifications, you leave with at least three very specific areas of knowledge. Individuals who leave that program, I've seen them go and work for Housing and Urban Development, universities in student loan offices, and then I've also had students go work for collection agencies for housing. For like mortgage and things like that. And, as I've said earlier, a prime factor of success for our programs is our internships. So here, we partner, and even in our clients who are out of state, we partner with agencies in their area, to offer internships. So when an individual has finished the five certifications, they begin looking for an internship, and even prior to that fifth one, we're looking for that next step. I don't want there to be a waiting period for our graduates. So, we've had an individual who was up in Illinois, and he worked for a college campus, doing student support, student loan assistance. Here, we have a homeless shelter that we partner with, and provide credit counseling, and essentially career support, so they teach the homeless how to write resumes and do interviewing. So we're passing on what we teach to our students in that course, and then they pass it on. So that's a really cool, really rewarding program. Again, that program is six to nine months, and it's offered online and on campus. The other program that we offer, that deals with finance in some respect, is our medical billing program. That program is one of our newer programs, and it really focuses on the reimbursement cycle within the medical field. It is billing; it's not coding. A lot of students kind of wonder, or perspective students, wonder, "Is that coding? Am I gonna have to learn how to code?" You will to some extent, but what that means is, as a biller, your job is to make sure that the practice gets paid, the patient is current on their bills and if any money's owed, that they get that money back, and then that the insurance company pays what they are supposed to pay. So, really, the hub of the wheel, as well as making sure that the codes that come from the coder once the provider does their procedures and diagnoses that those codes are correct, and gets those on interests. So that one's a very dynamic program. That program is six months long, and that one, we've partnered with the American Association of Professional Coders. Very reputable organization, it's the number one organization that provides medical billing education. So, we're very proud of that one. That one's new. I've got, I believe, three graduates within the next month. So we don't have anyone employed in that program yet, but as I said, it's new, so we're not anticipating any issues, but definitely looking forward to their success, and that program's success. And, like credit counseling, we also offer a prerequisite to that, and that's medical billing fundamentals. So if individuals come in and they're not familiar with the industry, we teach those fundamentals, so they know different types of insurance, really, an introduction to the language of the medical field. When you start a new job, you're wondering what the acronyms are, and what everything means, and that fundamentals course teaches everything an individual needs to know to get into medical billing. Including anatomy and physiology.
Chris: So, I imagine that there's a lot of computer use for either of these programs. Do you work with the kinds of software that people are gonna use at the bank, or at the college or at the doctor's office to do these things, so they know going out of it that the jobs are going to be accessible to them?
Eric: So, because every employer, a lot of employers have a lot of different software they use, we don't particularly teach software here, but when they get into the internship, we oversee that transition, work with vocational counselors in that transition, to make sure that software's accessible, and if there's any accommodations that are needed, we help vocational rehabilitation in making sure the job is accessible. So, yes, essentially.
Chris: Wow, that's really cool. How many of you are there on staff at World Services?
Eric: We've got about forty-five staff here. Like I said, we are a residential agency, so we do have a housing staff, and cafeteria staff, three meals a day. We take up an entire city block, and we've got maintenance and housekeeping and I believe we've got about ten instructors here, we've got a case manager, so we're relatively small, but you know, good things come in small packages. So we work really hard to maintain our reputation and to make sure that we're doing the right thing by the client and the vocational rehabilitation counselor.
Chris: And then, for your career training programs, you're partnering with agencies that offer legit certifications and stuff, so going out of it, people can say, you know, "This person is legit. They actually did something."
Eric: Absolutely. Yeah. One of the things I always say is, "Having "blind" on a resume really can scare off an employer." It's unfortunate, that may put a few people off, but we want to make sure that individuals go into a career with an industry standard certification. That isn't just some certification that folks throw together. I think, I mean, if you're gonna go work for a networking job, and you've got certifications through Microsoft, that's reputable. But if you've got certifications from some person you don't recognize, that's not gonna be as reputable, and it's gonna be harder to get a job. So, absolutely. And I spend a lot of time up front, before we even bring students in, making sure our courses are accessible. And that means sitting down with the organizations we're working with, going through the courses, making changes if necessary, training our instructors so there's someone on our side who's there to support, who's been certified in that area. And then we also provide the additional assistive technology, braille, adult education if necessary, along the way. So, we make sure there's added value. That's a big deal, and we also make sure that when our students leave, they look good. We want to make sure they look good and they represent us, their vocational rehabilitation counselor, and the certifying organization, they represent them well.
Chris: Well that's terrific.
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Chris: So, do people need to work with a vocational rehabilitation counselor to get involved in one of these programs?
Eric: So, for vocational training courses, we prefer that individuals work with vocational rehabilitation counselors to cover the cost of tuition, but we do offer a ninety-day scholarship for individuals turned down by vocational rehabilitation for life skills training. Really, that gives an individual an opportunity to come in, build their skills, and really helps us, and them, determine if they're employable. If there's a path that they’re interested in to employment, and at World Services, we're passionate about making sure that the cost of training isn't an issue, so we're developing that scholarship continuously and making sure that we can fund as many people who need the life skills training to really get the skills they need to be successful in a career.
Chris: That's also terrific. I'm just so excited about all the things that you're telling me. How can people get a hold of you if they want to?
Eric: Yeah. So folks can follow us on Facebook, it's WSB, or World Services for the Blind, we say WSB, and then you can give us a call, 503-664-7100. Anybody can feel free to email me.
and I'd love to talk to you, just about anything. And another thing I want to add as well, is that we do, for students interested in our online training, we do a free assessment that's two weeks. Because everyone's not fit for an online environment, and that helps vocational rehabilitation counselors figure out if online is a good fit for them. We've offered that assessment free for a few years now, and that's worked out in identifying strengths and weaknesses prior to training, so we can really determine if you're a good fit. If you have any questions about our programs, don't hesitate to reach out.
Chris: Well, thanks. Is there anything that I should have asked you that I didn't think to ask?
Eric: I don't think so. I really appreciate you having me, and one thing we really say around World Services for the Blind is "Honestly, we don't care where you get services. If you need them, just go get them." It's important that you take that first step in the right direction. Sitting at home is not healthy, and even if you're just getting out and volunteering, it's a step in the right direction. You never know where it's gonna take you.
Chris: Absolutely. Well, Eric, it's been a real pleasure. I hope we can have you on again, and thank you for being here.
Eric: Thank you so much, Chris.
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