Derek Burton, a sweet-tempered man wearing a green vest covered in patches from around the world given to him by his customers, carefully makes his way into the room. He’s moving a little slower than usual due to a badly-stubbed toe, but his sunny disposition remains intact. His hair is carefully-combed, his clothes neat and pressed. He smiles ear-to-ear and his laugh is easy and frequent.
This is a man who is confident and content. He’d sung in his school choir for years, and after graduating from Classen High School, had worked and attended community college. But in the early 1990s, it was a different story. By then he was a young, single father of two small sons, in a precarious situation. Like most parents, he needed a job so he could support his children. The hitch? Derek has limitations which seriously affect his mobility and ability to stand. But it has never affected his spirit or determination.
He’d worked for a decade at Sears, and during his tenure there had earned his associate’s degree in computer science from Oklahoma City Community College. When Derek heard Sears was closing that store, he felt like a heavy weight had been placed on him. For three years, he desperately sought another job without any success.
He had experience and an impeccable work record, but no one would hire him. That was until one day when his vocational rehabilitation counselor told him about a cashier position for a new Food Service contract set aside for the Dale Rogers Training Center on Tinker Air Force Base through the AbilityOne Program, creating a confluence of circumstances which led to the impossible becoming possible for a man whose biggest dream was to be able to send his sons to college.
Derek applied and was hired on a cold December day in 1992. “I applied, and I got the job,” he says. “Dale Rogers (Training Center) gave me a chance to grow and to believe in myself. Many times, we don’t think we can survive or compete, but we can do more than just suffer with disability. At (DRTC), you become a part of the family, and it gives you confidence.”
Burton’s own family motivates him to do a good job at Tinker. He spends his time away from work determined to return the favor and consistently motivate his now-adult children to also do their best. “I try to teach my sons how to live everyday life and to do the right thing,” Burton said. “That’s my number one goal.”
His naturally-outgoing personality allowed him to treat the young airmen and women, often nervous and away from home for the first time, with fatherly warmth. When they come through his line, he greets them with a smile and asks how they’re doing. “When they first come in, they’re scared and maybe lost a little, so you just grab hold of them and make them feel like they’re part of the family,” he says.
On his well-worn green vest is the tangible evidence of how much Derek means to his customers. Patches and emblems cover nearly every inch of it. “Each patch is a gift. I got this red star from a sailor who was headed to Switzerland. He wanted me to have something to remember him by. Tinker was his first station and he said I made him feel like a little brother. That red star started it all,” Derek says.
Today, some 25 years later, Derek and his two sons are thriving, and the dreams of this father have come true. Dakoda, his eldest son, is now in vet school, and younger son Dylan is completing his internship to become a pharmacist.
Dale Rogers Training Center (DRTC) is the oldest and largest community vocational training and employment center for people with disabilities in Oklahoma. With multiple locations in Oklahoma, DRTC trains or employs approximately 1,000 people with disabilities per year. Visit us online: DRTC.org.