By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Milton Dupard was born to be a lefty.
The Joplin man’s right arm has never been very strong. When he meets people, he uses his left hand for the handshake. Though he doesn’t wear a cast or bind it to his body, his right arm is still and immobile -- a condition of an accident during childbirth and another accident underneath a truck as a teenager.
He always found a way to keep working, however. Dupard, 35, has worked shifts at Cardinal Scale in Webb City and Able Manufacturing in Joplin.
Now, he has work of a different type. Dupard is a job developer for Alternative Opportunities Employment Services’ Joplin office. He meets with employers and works to find clients jobs that match their particular set of skills.
“We work one-on-one with individuals,” Dupard said.
He knows firsthand about what it’s like to go through vocational rehabilitation. Before Dupard started working for Alternative Opportunities, he was a client.
Dupard grew up in Convent, La., where he lived for most of his life. It was there that his right arm was first injured. During childbirth, Dupard was delivered sideways, and his right arm was broken in the delivery.
Though it healed, the arm was never at 100 percent, Dupard said. But an injury as a teenager re-injured his arm significantly.
“I was working underneath a semi,” Dupard said. “It ran over my arm, which got broken pretty bad.”
From Convent, he signed up with a job corps in Arkansas, then moved to Joplin in 1996.
His disabled arm never kept him from working, either. His first job was with Able Manufacturing, building jet skis. He also worked for five years with the former Gulf States Paper and at Cardinal Scales for three years.
“It was almost like how a person who can’t hear well develops other senses,” Dupard said of his working experiences. “I always had a way to deal with my limitations. I could figure a way around things a little bit.”
He enjoyed each of those jobs and spoke highly of all three employers. The only thing that ruined his experience were little injuries that seemed to cause more damage than they should.
Near the end of his career at Cardinal, a small cut led to the development of the staph infection known as MRSA, a resulting hospitalization and being out of work.
While fighting the illness, Dupard’s doctor asked if him he’d ever consider a new line of work.
“He said I should look into vocational rehab,” Dupard said. “He said, ‘Why don’t you find something not as physical? You’ve proven you can do the work, but you should find something more accommodating to your health.’”
For many people, work is a source of personal identity and pride, and Dupard was no different. The thought of not working and undergoing vocational rehab was nerve-racking, he said.
Yet, he took the plunge. He and his fiancee of four years turned down an offer to return to Cardinal and trained for the next phase of his career, while continuing to fight the MRSA infection.
“I was out of work probably four or five months,” Dupard said. “The main problem was the MRSA. That stuff was hard to shake. It took a month or two to get where it finally went away.
“Cardinal even gave me the opportunity; if I wanted to come back, I was more than welcome. But for some reason, I knew I wasn’t gonna go back. I focused on school.”
Alternative Opportunities runs a number of programs across three states, from drug courts to work force partnerships. Dupard enrolled in an employment program with AO. Part of the process included an analysis of skills, likes, character traits and more.
Dupard said the employment program works to pair employers with employees. Staffers meet with employers, find out about the different jobs associated with their businesses and work to find fits with clients.
That process involves working with clients to find out what they are good at. Dupard said the clients have a wide variety of experience, from high-school dropouts to college graduates.
“One out of every five people has a disability of some sort,” Dupard said. “No matter who we see, they are there for a reason. They want to contribute to society, and they want to be able to work.”
Dupard said the office never knows exactly who will walk through the door. They may have a bachelor’s degree, they may have been laid off from a longtime job thanks to a business closure.
About two years ago, in November, AO approached Dupard with a job offer -- for its own staff.
“They looked at some of my traits and interests, and it fit in with what Alternative Opportunities does,” Dupard said. “A situation came up where they needed a job developer, and we got to talking about that. I said, ‘You know what, I’d love to give that a try.’”
Dupard now says he is in a position that he has been training for his whole life. He understands firsthand working with a disability, and knows the challenges associated with keeping a job -- much less deciding to quit and search for a job that has nothing to do with your job history.
Dupard said he could never imagine leaving Cardinal because he loved the job so much. But the infection that kept him from working led him to a spot where he helps others in similar positions.
“Sometimes I think of this as a spiritual move,” Dupard said. “(God) had me on a path to doing something. I think I’ve been put through what I went through for a reason, and I wouldn’t change it.”
There are plenty of jobs to be had around the region, Dupard said. Especially since the May 22 tornado -- Dupard said that many businesses have been understanding about tornado-related issues.
And though Dupard didn’t have exact numbers, there have been plenty of success stories, he said.
“We’ve had some people who thought they couldn’t work and have been through some hard times,” Dupard said. “Between going through vocational rehab and being there for them, we’re able to see them go from struggling to making it. They land a competitive job and making a living like everyone else.”
Dupard loves his new job, even though the first few days were terrifying, he said. He was so used to working on his feet near a machine that the transition to a desk and making appointments was a shock.
But he adjusted, and now believes he is in the perfect position. So much so that he’d gladly choose to be a lefty all over again.
“If I could go back and get the chance to use my right arm, I wouldn’t do it,” Dupard said. “I can relate to the people I serve and can understand them. What I deal with, I’ve been there.”