On a sizzling mid-summer morning against a back-drop of brilliant blue sky, Scott Wurst hoists his leg and climbs aboard a fairway mower. Wurst, who wears khaki pants, a black polo shirt, a white hard hat, work boots and gloves, is a crew member on the Westfield Group Country Club’s South Course golf maintenance staff in Westfield Center, Ohio. Wurst is all business as he fires up the massive machine and embarks on his task. He is also focused and confident – any golf course superintendent would be proud to have Wurst on his staff.
“He has developed into one of our key mower operators,” says Mark Jordan, the certified golf course superintendent of Westfield’s 36 holes, who hired Wurst about five years ago as a part-time crew member. “Scott has found a home here.”
One might not realize it upon meeting him, but the 32-year-old Wurst is developmentally disabled. He was born into this world with a learning disability.
“If you put a book in front of me and tell me to read it, I will have problems,” the red-bearded Wurst says. “I also have problems with math. It bothers me a little bit, but not as much as it used to. I’ve accepted it and moved on.”
On Westfield’s North Course main-tenance crew there are two other part-time employees who are also developmentally disabled – Jonathan Pelton has a learning disability, and Cameron McNull has Down syndrome. The 41-year-old McNull, who washes equipment at the North Course maintenance facility, joined the staff almost eight years ago. The 26-year-old Pelton, who is in charge of keeping the maintenance shop neat and tidy, has been on the staff for two years.
“I love working here,” the smiling McNull says. “I clean all of the grass off the mowers.”
Pelton says in his soft-toned voice that the job has boosted his self-confidence. But what does he like most about it?
“The money,” he says with a vast grin.
In the summer of 2008, Jordan, whose title is natural resources leader at Westfield, was having difficulty filling some part-time but much-needed positions on the golf course maintenance staff. Someone recommended to Jordan that he check with the local board of developmental disabilities, which provides services including employment to people who are disabled. While Jordan was able to solve the pressing work issues in-house, he was intrigued: He wanted to learn more about hiring people with developmental disabilities.
“I like to help people realize their maximum potential,” Jordan says.
Jordan met with leaders and others from the board of developmental disabilities to see what opportunities Westfield could provide for those who needed jobs.
“We identified some gaps in our operations where we were lacking support, such as equipment washing,” Jordan says.
The key was to place identified candidates in the right roles where they could perform and be comfortable in their jobs. Their safety, of course, was also a primary focus.
Wurst, McNull and Pelton were not the first individuals hired. In the beginning, a few others didn’t work out; they just weren’t a good match. But Jordan didn’t scrap his idea of wanting to hire developmentally disabled individuals – one, because he wanted to enrich their lives by allowing them to work; and, two, because he knew they could help where help was needed at Westfield.
McNull was hired in 2009 when Westfield needed someone on the North Course to wash equipment for about 16 hours a week. He proved a good fit. Although McNull is not able to drive the equipment into the wash pad, North Course Superintendent Kyle Smith arranged for the equipment technician and his assistant to do that for him.
“He is just happy to be alive,” Jordan says of McNull. “He is happy the good Lord put him on this earth to be at Westfield.”
Wurst was hired a short time later to also wash equipment. But after a few years, Jordan and Ben Imhoff, the South Course’s superintendent, realized that Wurst had the capability to do more. They trained him to maintain bunkers with a mechanical bunker raker. Later, they taught Wurst how to operate a fairway mower and a triplex mower to cut greens. He works 24 to 30 hours a week during the golf season.
“Scott is so excited and thankful that we have given him more opportunities to do things,” Imhoff says.
Pelton is finishing his second season on the crew and works up to 20 hours a week.
“He also has the potential to grow here and do more,” Jordan says.
Pelton came to Westfield through Goodwill Industries International, a national organization that provides job training, employment placement services, and other community-based programs for people who have barriers preventing them from otherwise acquiring a job.
Wurst, McNull and Pelton are paid around the minimum wage. Their pay is determined by how much federal financial support they receive. The three also have job coaches appointed by the organizations that placed them, who check in once a month with Smith and Imhoff to see how they are performing.
Jordan hopes to hire other employees who are developmentally disabled.
“We could have someone just in charge of filling divots for 20 hours a week,” he says.
A few months ago, Westfield Insurance, which owns the country club, hosted representatives of Project Search on its campus. Project Search is a national organization that helps youth with disabilities make successful transitions from high school to adult life, including on-the-job training.
“They looked at our whole campus to identify opportunities for these young adults to be able to transition from high school to real life. That is their mission, which correlates with what we are doing here,” Jordan says.
Jordan realizes his vision to hire developmentally disabled people would not be a reality if other crew members were not on board, especially Imhoff and Smith.
Imhoff admits when he first began at Westfield about five years ago, he was unsure about Wurst working under his wing. Imhoff, of course, has no issues with developmentally disabled people, but he didn’t want anything to get in the way of him presenting the best conditioned golf course possible to the country club’s members.
“I didn’t want to have to babysit him,” Imhoff says.
But the more Imhoff worked with Wurst, the more he realized that Wurst was a very capable employee who was more a help than a hindrance. He began to embrace Jordan’s vision.
“He has been nothing but a tremendous help,” Imhoff says of Wurst. “We have a great working relationship. We’ll joke with each other. He jabs me and I jab him right back, and we both take it well.”
Wurst has come so far that he even helps train younger seasonal crew members on some jobs.
Smith, who has worked at Westfield for 11 years, has also embraced Jordan’s plan to hire developmentally disabled individuals. But Smith stresses that they weren’t hired and will not be hired in the future so the leaders on the golf course maintenance staff can feel good about themselves.
“It is truly to give them a purpose in life and have them do a job for us that needs to be done,” Smith says. “It’s a win-win situation.”
Smith treats McNull and Pelton like any other employees. He is also not afraid to get on them if they don’t perform up to expectations. For instance, if McNull misses a few spots on a mower when cleaning it, Smith will show him the spots he missed and coach him to do a better job.
“They want to know if they are doing a good job, and they want to know if they aren’t doing a good job,” Smith says.
Imhoff takes a similar approach with Wurst, but he also realizes that Wurst’s disability sometimes causes him to overthink things, which can lead to him becoming stressed and emotional.
“But when we sit down and talk through things, he is fine,” Imoff says. “The simpler I can keep things for him, the less stressed he is.”
Imhoff and Smith realize they may have to assume a different management style with Wurst, McNull and Pelton. But so what?
“I have to take a different approach with Scott, but I take a different approach with my assistant and my technician, too,” Imhoff says. “We are all the same. We are here to provide the best golf course we can, and we all understand that.”
Jordan realizes that Wurst, McNull and Pelton will make mistakes, but so do all the crew members on the 54-person staff, including himself.
“Do I miss things? Heck yes I do. And they do to, too. We are all human,” Jordan says.
For the 52-year-old Jordan, who has worked at Westfield for 28 years, wanting to employ developmentally disabled people goes back to his upbringing – he was raised by his parents to help others and to love your neighbor as yourself, he says.
“The difference is what society says to us about people who are developmentally disabled,” Jordan says. “[Wurst, McNull and Pelton] know no limitations, other than what people put on them by not allowing them certain life experiences.”
When Smith was asked if he thinks all people have some kind of disability, he didn’t have to dwell on the question.
“Yes,” he says. “It’s just that some of us aren’t willing to admit it.”
If you want to learn more about hiring developmentally disabled workers, contact:
Jordan, a member of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America’s board of directors, hopes that other golf courses will consider hiring developmentally disabled employees.
“If you have a labor shortage … this is a group of potential employees that I don’t think we look at enough to hire,” he states.
It might take a little more time and patience to train them, but Jordan says the effort is worth it. “If we can give them a chance and they succeed, then they wake up every morning with a purpose in life,” he says.
Wurst has found his purpose at Westfield. “This job keeps me going,” he says.
The job also keeps him reaching for his potential, which is just what Jordan wants him to do.