Nicole Hazel spends her days making sure individuals with differing abilities lead meaningful lives.
As Director of Vocational Services at The Arc Northern Chesapeake Region in Harford County, Hazel oversees more than 200 people in a program that helps adults with developmental disabilities find employment and opportunities.
Individuals are supported through job coaching and placement at companies including Royal Farms, Chesapeake Spice Company and ShopRite, and are also connected with necessary resources if they’re unable to work. Employees are hired to work independently or within groups doing janitorial work.
“We try to place individuals in the jobs of their choice,” Hazel said. “If they want to work at the 7-Eleven, they’ll talk to the supervisor, put in an application and go through the hiring process just like everyone else.”
The daughter of a school teacher, Hazel said it’s the type of work she was born to do. After dabbling in fashion design and computers at Baker College in Michigan, she discovered a passion for supporting others and is now pursuing a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling to push her advocacy work for The Arc’s community.
The Arc, a nationwide non-profit, has been around for 60 years as a rehabilitation organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Hazel said that while rehabilitation methods have evolved over the years, the goal of the organization is to support a person through any phase of life.
“Our focus now is on how to offer individuals with differing abilities a life that doesn’t have barriers that were probably put into place because there was lack of legislation, or even in some cases, because legislation was unfair,” she said.
Not only does the program ensure a fair wage for workers, it also serves as a lifeline, preventing some from falling through cracks in the system.
The group has a strong relationship with Harford County Public Schools, bridging the gap between graduating special education students and supported living services, yet sometimes, Hazel said, families can drop the ball and miss out on critical support at key periods in a person’s life.
“Once you fall out of that window the likelihood that you’ll get those funding services is slim to none,” she said. “That’s how we find individuals with differing abilities who are living in shelters and who are homeless because they don’t have the services in place, and there was no one there to facilitate it.”
It’s a stark reality that hits home for Hazel. Her 8-year-old niece, Cameron, was born premature and was diagnosed with short gut syndrome after a hospital error forced her to lose 97 percent of her intestines. Hazel said her niece has cognitive delays and may be on a feeding tube for the rest of her life. Her birth inspired Hazel to aim for global change.
“Every time I think about a new person getting a job I think about what life would be like for her if she met up against barriers every time she went to do something,” she said. “I can’t imagine her not being whoever she wants be and having experiences that make her life meaningful. If it means that by eliminating barriers in what I do, she’ll have new opportunities, I’m going to do it 100 percent.”
Hazel's drive hasn't gone unnoticed at The Arc Northern Chesapeake Region. Andrea Lynn, the organization's assistant director of marketing and development, said Hazel has helped make a huge difference within the community.
"We absolutely love having Nicole," Lynn said. "She just exudes passion and that’s something that I admire. You can tell she truly believes in what she does and she is such a strong advocate for people with disabilities."
Follow Andrea Boston on Twitter @AndreaFromABC2