• Tiffini Mueller

From Jewelry to Janitorial: 25 Years Making Meaningful Work

Her first day on the job, she wanted to quit. Then 45-years-old, Cathy France had just made a major career transition from assistant manager in the fine jewelry department at JC Penney in The Dalles to a janitorial supervisor, responsible for a crew of people with disabilities assigned to clean the largest rest areas along I-5. It was hard, “interesting” work cleaning the largest rest area in the United States. “Oh, I have stories,” says Cathy. You can probably imagine the things Cathy and her crew discovered. One week, her team found a suspicious device in one of the restrooms. “The bomb squad had to come out with their robots. We had to close an entire restroom section and wait for them to make sure it was safe,” she remembers. And then a look-alike device was discovered again the next day. And the next day. Four out of five days that week were disrupted in the same way. Thank goodness no one was hurt. “I got an education out there that I did not need,” she laughs.

Obviously, she made it past her first day. She started to look forward to wearing shoes that weren’t heels, and clothes that weren’t formal like her jewelry customers expected. But that’s not the only thing that brought her back every day.

Cathy had a friend when she was a young girl who was blind. Her name was also Cathy. The two became friends in first grade but were separated when she moved away at the end of the school year. Decades later, Cathy (our Cathy) saw the other Cathy behind the counter in the small employee cafeteria on her first day at Relay. She couldn’t believe it. “Cathy?” she asked. “Cathy!?” the other Cathy responded. Incredibly, Cathy’s childhood friend had recognized her immediately, even though she couldn’t see her. It was a sign.

Ten years later, Cathy became interested in something new and was reassigned from the field to a training position. Her new job was to instruct janitorial trainees, most of them experiencing disabilities, who wanted to learn how to be a janitor – extremely physical work. Cathy had to figure out a balance between giving everyone a chance and being realistic enough to avoid setting people up for failure. She admits she was surprised by her trainees more than once. Mike Best, a trainee with only one hand, was not only a successful janitor, he is now a trainer alongside Cathy. “I was so glad to be wrong,” she says. Read more about Mike’s story here.

It was only a few years ago when Learning and Development Manager Jonathan Cresson joined Relay, that Cathy got some help. “Cathy was doing all the training and paperwork by herself!” Jonathan explains. “If she was on vacation, there was no training.” Right away Jonathan advocated for new positions to support Cathy and to enhance Relay’s training capabilities. “I was blown away -- not only by her deep knowledge of janitorial best practices, but of her compassion and empathy for all of our trainees,” he says.

Documenting and sharing Cathy’s knowledge has helped set Relay up for future success, allowing Cathy to confidently pass the baton to the next generation of compassionate trainers. Her experience at Relay impacted many people’s lives, including more than 3,000 trainees experiencing disabilities or other barriers.

Now 70, Cathy is finally ready to retire. And she has big plans for retirement. “I’m not going to set an alarm. I’m going to stay in my robe and fuzzy slippers and sit in my recliner with my feet up. And then I’m going to say to myself, ‘what do I want to do today?’ and then I’m going to say, ‘wait a minute, that’s right – NOTHING!’”

Before her last day, we asked Cathy if she had any advice for the trainer who attempts to fill her shoes. She offered three things:

  • Nothing valuable in life comes easy. Some things may make you uncomfortable, but it’s worth it.

  • Keep the mission in mind in everything you do.

  • Don’t forget to bring your sense of humor to your work.

Cathy’s final reflection is a beautifully simple definition of meaningful work. “I met so many people who have every right to stay home, but who are motivated to be a productive member of society, and who just need a little help to make that happen. Working at Relay helped me realize what the mission is really all about: fitting in. After all, that’s what we all want, isn’t it? Just to fit in? No one wants to feel like a square peg in a round hole. If we can help provide that for people, it’s our duty to do that.”

Thank you, Cathy, for 25 years of bringing meaningful work to so many people.

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