Success story: Tori

Tori laying in a hospital bed, wearing a neck brace and connected to medical equipment.
Tori in the hospital, 2007

“The doctor looked at my husband and goes, ‘Not even prayer will fix this. This is it for her.’”

It was a life-changing and devastating prognosis for Tori Richardson, who was involved in a serious rollover accident in 2007 that left her paralyzed. Her neck was broken from her C2 to C7 vertebrae. Doctors said she would never move again, but 13 years later, Tori has not only found mobility, but also successful employment through Dale Rogers Training Center (DRTC).

Long journey

Two images, side-by-side. One, Tori after her wreck sitting on a couch. The other, after completing a 5K race holding a medal.
Tori after her wreck and recovery

After her accident, Tori’s opportunities for work looked slim. Fortunately for her, she had a good support team. Her husband would not let her quit and her mother got Tori into physical rehabilitation. It was a long, three-month journey. On top of that, Tori needed additional surgeries to stabilize her neck. Tori battled depression and weight gain along the way. She eventually had lap-band surgery to help—dropping 200 pounds—which also helped her mobility and get her through what she calls the darkest place she’s ever been in her life. Nowadays, she moves through muscle memory. But the heavy tingling sensation through her body never leaves.

“My arms, my legs, my back,” said Tori. “Some days are way worse than others and some days I feel I’m walking through cement and then other days it is not as bad.”

“All they can do is tell you ‘no’”

With a fresh outlook on life, Tori needed to get back into the workplace. Her stepdad, who worked at DRTC for 23 years, knew the agency’s mission of employing and training people with disabilities just like Tori.

Tori standing with three other personnel from Tinker Air Force Base.
Tori, second from left, with Tinker personnel

“He was like, ‘Hey, just go and talk to them, you know. All they can do is tell you no,’” Tori recounts.

Tori, using her walker, attended a job fair and interview, joining the DRTC Food Service federal contract as a cashier in 2016. Landing the job was a success in itself, considering Tori’s life journey, and she remains thankful for the opportunity that has blossomed into a career.

“(DRTC) gave me a chance when I know for a fact that most companies would not. They wouldn’t. They just wouldn’t.”

That chance has led to a career almost five-years and counting. Tori is now the Facility Manager/Assistant Contract Manager for the same Food Service contract she started. Nowadays, she considers Vanwey Dining Hall (on Tinker Air Force Base) her second home, and the friendships and bonds she has made with coworkers have left a lasting impact.

From coworker to supervisor

Having started in an entry-level position, Tori was able to get a first-hand working knowledge of being an essential employee and understanding of operations at DRTC’s Food Service contract. It also helped her build rapport with many of the 40 staff on contract. For some, having Tori transition from peer to supervisor was an adjustment, but Tori has use it as a motivational tool to show they can also advance in the agency.

“For the most part they have all really been happy and been really supportive and I think it’s made them like, ‘Wow, she can do that,’ and I use my story with them.”

Tori, right, presenting an American Red Cross Certificate of Completion to a staff member.
Tori presents a Certificate of Completion to Steven

For Tori and many others involved with Dale Rogers Training Center, the best part of the job is usually unanimous: the people. DRTC trains, employs, or serves approximately 1,000 people with disabilities and limiting conditions every year. Disabilities cover a wide gamut – including hard of hearing, anxiety disorder, clinical depression, intellectual disability or Aspergers, to name a few—and 75% of employees at DRTC’s federal contracts must have a documented disability. The staff largely drive Tori on a daily basis.

“Merwynn (an employee at Vanwey) cleans the front steps every morning and she has the biggest, most beautiful smile and she loves her job,” said Tori. “That woman can just melt my heart every single time and just seeing how important it is to them it helps me to keep in perspective it should be to myself as well.”

Tori has made connections with other staff as well, finding ways to motivate them through a program that rewards staff for doing exceptionally well and caring for each person to see them successful not only at work but also personally. Her efforts have resonated with staff who mentioned being thankful for having a great boss this Thanksgiving.

“Those are the things that really just make me feel like I have to be doing something right.”

Leading the way

The team at DRTC’s Food Service contract is no stranger to overcoming adversity. Prior to the pandemic, renovations at Vanwey Dining Hall disrupted operations, but the crew took it in stride. The investment in a new kitchen sparked a lot of excitement for staff.

“I’ve worked several places in my 40 years of life and I’ve never had a job where everyone loves their job. It’s what they do. It’s who a lot of them are.”

Before COVID-19, the crew prepared almost 13,000 meals monthly to military personnel and civilian staff. While the numbers have dropped in 2020, staff still take great pride in their work and role for the military. The Air Force has taken notice, too. The Food Service contract and several employees have been recognized for their work since DRTC was first awarded the contract in 1993. Every year, top personnel help serve holiday meals from Vanwey—a testament to the strong relationship between DRTC and the Air Force.

Thankful for DRTC

Tori, left, posing for a photo with someone dressed as the Grinch and another staff member.
2017 holiday meal at Vanwey Dining Hall

Nearly five years after beginning her employment journey with DRTC, Tori has not lost sight of how much the agency has supported her—or how much she has earned through hard work and determination to overcome her injuries.

“DRTC has always accommodated me, always allowed me to do what was needed to be done until I was comfortable.”

The confidence and assistance provided along the way reflects the agency’s mission of providing employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Through accommodations, the agency is better equipped to help staff like Tori reach their full potential and gain independence. As a result, many staff feel particularly dedicated to the agency that has supported them so much.

“Dale Rogers Training Center is very important to me and this contract is very important to me. And I will always feel indebted to DRTC.”

The friendships gained along the way certainly add to the connection with the agency. Many people involved with DRTC often remark how much the workers positively affect them on a daily basis.

Merwynn placing pies on a tray, smiling for a picture.
Merwynn (Courtesy: The Oklahoman)

“Miss Merwynn’s picture is still to this day hanging in the hallway with her cutting pie because it’s just an infectious smile. And that’s what you see when you come to my contract.”

Tori admits it is hard for her to fully describe how much DRTC has changed her life. From the time of her accident in 2007, Tori would have been hard-pressed to imagine her being in this position today. Her employment gave her something to work toward—to regain her confidence while she was still recovering. That opportunity helped put Tori back on track in life, and she says she will never forget it.

“Dale Rogers Training Center gave me a place. It gave me somewhere to spread my wings and to know that my body is broken but my mind is not.”

Dale Rogers Training Center (DRTC) is Oklahoma’s leading community vocational training and employment center for people with disabilities in Oklahoma. With multiple locations in Oklahoma, DRTC trains, serves or employs approximately 1,000 people with disabilities per year. Visit us online: DRTC.org.

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