The Right Side of the Blanket
Updated: Oct 29, 2019
How One Tenacious Counselor and an Iconic Northwest Company Gave an Injured Worker a New Lease on Life
Michael Johnson’s life was at a low ebb. After a lifetime of physical work, he’d suffered a catastrophic loss when his right arm was amputated in an accident at a manufacturing facility in 2014. As traumatic as the physical aspects of the injury were, the mental and emotional ones were worse.
“I got kicked out of the place I was living and was homeless for two and a half years,” says Johnson. “The gal I’d been dating for 15 years up and left. The accident affected me all around. It was quite devastating.”
By 2018 he was living on friends’ couches or sleeping in his truck. Doctors had diagnosed him as having both Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and major depression. At one point his weight dropped to just 97 pounds.
Then fate intervened, in the form of a tenacious Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor who refused to give up and an iconic American company that decided to give Johnson a chance.
Kevin Leneker knows the vocational rehabilitation world. As a co-owner of Single Handed Consulting and a Disability Management expert, he provides return-to-work services to employers and their injured workers, trade associations, and state agencies. He’s in regular contact with the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I), where he was once a Workers Compensation Claims Manager.
But Leneker also understands firsthand what it means to navigate life with a disability. Like Johnson, he is missing his right arm. The difference: Leneker was born with a congenital birth defect. “I’ve had my entire life to learn how to adapt and modify everything from routine tasks to critical job functions,” he says.
Growing up, he often encountered barriers based on limited ideas about what was possible for him. “I have always loved to work,” Leneker explains. “When I was 12, a job became available at a chicken farm down the road. Naively, I couldn’t understand it when they refused to hire me. By high school, I’d been turned down again and again for work that I knew I could do.”
A turning point occurred when he was 16. After seeing a posting for two part-time workers at a local lumber yard, he drove there directly to find both the superintendent and manager on site. “The manager took one look at me and said, ‘I don’t think so. This job is pretty physical,’” says Leneker. “Something in me would not take one more ‘no’ for an answer. I’d been rejected so often, and I really needed the money.”
“I will do anything,” he told them. “You don’t understand. You see a guy here with one arm but
I’ve been working since I could hold things because that’s how my dad raised me. I’ll come in on a Saturday and work for free.” The superintendent looked at him and said, “Be here at 7:00.” Leneker got the job.
In later years when he became a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, Leneker’s driving force was to help others help themselves through a difficult time in their lives. “My own experiences have taught me that everyone has the capacity to work and that work is good for everyone,” he says. “I use my disability to inspire and motivate my clients as a real-world example that adversity is nothing more than a word that means ‘requiring more effort to succeed.”
Pendleton Woolen Mills is a world-renowned manufacturer of woolen blankets, men’s and women’s apparel, home and accessories products. The family-owned and operated company’s historic roots in the Pacific Northwest span six generations and today its president and chief executive officer John Bishop, and vice president of merchandising, Peter Bishop, are direct descendants of founders Fannie Kay and C.P. Bishop. Elizabeth Bishop is the newest family member to join the company, she is the great-great granddaughter of Fannie Kay.
Pendleton has a history of community involvement, from a century of participating in the annual Pendleton Round-Up in Pendleton, Oregon, the original site of Pendleton Woolen Mills - to the committed partnership with the American Indian College Fund. The College Fund provides scholarships to deserving Native American Students to attend tribal colleges and universities. “Supporting members of the local community is very much streamlined with Pendleton’s values and culture, which are centered around giving back to the communities in which we live and work,” says Melissa Britton, Human Resources Manager of Textile Mills.
In the aftermath of his accident, Johnson went through vocational assessment and plan development, completing a vocational retraining plan which included an On the Job Training (OJT) component. However, working in the fast-paced OJT environment required constant interaction with customers which made him feel anxious and overwhelmed. Now he was at a low point. Compounding the issue, the company didn’t hire him once the OJT period ended so he was also unemployed.
That’s where Leneker first encountered him.
“We spent a lot of time talking and also comparing prosthetic arms,” says Leneker. “His was heated and way nicer than mine!” Despite their relative ages (Johnson is older than Leneker by a decade), he saw a reflection of his younger self, the one who experienced rejection after rejection based on his perceived abilities. Leneker was determined to help Johnson get back to work.
The first step was creating a structured plan to keep Johnson motivated. Along with his sister Katie, co-owner of Single Handed Consulting and a fellow VRC, Leneker met with Johnson
weekly, spoke with him on the phone daily, and identified a list of return to work goals for him to work toward. For his part, Johnson took classes at WorkSource and conducted daily online and in-person job searches. As it turned out, Johnson had a dream company in mind all along, one that would allow him to use his experience in manufacturing: Pendleton Woolen Mills.
A quick search revealed that the company was currently hiring for five positions, three of which Johnson was qualified for and physically capable of doing. What he didn’t know was that Leneker had previously met the Vice President of Textile Manufacturing, Rolan Snider, earlier that year while participating in a leadership course. “As I drove home from our regular
meeting, I asked myself, ‘Why not reach out?’” says Leneker. “That night I drafted an email reminding him of who I was and explaining that I had a motivated client who believed that working for his company would be a dream job. It was a long shot, but worth trying.”
Fifteen minutes later, he got a response. Pendleton had just hired a new human resource
director and Snider would put him in touch.
Snider remembers receiving the message about Johnson. “My first thought was the safety aspect,” he explains. “We welcomed Kevin’s contact and suggestions.” He passed the information along to Britton. “We started from an informed position when we considered hiring Michael,” she says.
She worked with Johnson and Leneker to find a position that would suit his needs and abilities. The best fit was the finishing department, where Johnson now works the night shift on the final steps in creating the famous Pendleton blankets. “I really love my job,” he says. “I love the people I work with. They’re willing to help me in any way they can.” He’s clearly proud to represent a company that is internationally recognized.
The hiring decision is also working out for Pendleton. According to Snider, Johnson is punctual, productive and matches the pace and job performance of his fellow workers and interacts well with colleagues.
Britton agrees. “We have not had to make any modifications in order for him to do his job successfully,” she notes. “He is actually in the process of working with Kevin Leneker to receive a new robotic prosthetic to help perform his job even better. He has a great attitude.”
For his part, Johnson credits Leneker with helping him shift. “He helped me get a different mindset by sharing how he dealt with things. I have to have patience with myself to get something accomplished and get it done right,” he says. “Kevin was a big supporter of mine in this whole thing.”
Now the Pendleton job is the realization of a dream, one he would have had trouble imagining through the years of couch surfing and depression. “I’m very grateful for the chance to work with this company,” says Johnson. “It’s becoming part of my family.”