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State Intern Contract: Turning 'Diversity Into Dollars'?

July 5, 2011 - 6:00pm

A small home-based Florida company has won a $207,784 contract to "improve employment services" for 25 individuals treated for mental illnesses.

Announcing the contract, David Wilkins, secretary of the Department of Children and Families, said, We are putting into practice Governor [Rick] Scotts call to get Floridians back to work by linking businesses with the people who are ready to go to work as part of their treatment and recovery from mental illnesses.

Adults with a history of mental illnesses will be employed as paid interns with private businesses sympathetic to their situation," Wilkins said in a statement.

Wilson Resources Inc. will serve as a job-building facilitator between service agencies and employers, said Leslie Wilson, president and CEO of the Palmetto-based consulting firm.

"It's about getting the service provider to speak the employer's language," said Wilson, who told Sunshine State News that her firm has worked for the past six years with the Florida Business Leadership Network.

FBLN says its goal is to "promote diversity policies that include people with disabilities and hiring practices that target candidates with disabilities."

Conducting training at employer sites and at local service agencies, Wilson said her company has helped to place 100 interns in limited, 240-hour positions. She anticipated no difficulty identifying 25 qualified interns for the six-month positions.

"The hope is that this will lead to a permanent job. At minimum, when they come out, they have a resume," Wilson said.

Several key details in the WRI contract still need to be ironed out -- even though the $207,784 is locked in.

"The actual relationship between Wilson and employers is not yet developed and the contract between Wilson and the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation is not finalized," said the Department of Education, which is administering the program.

Thus, DOE could not say what salaries will be paid to the interns or what training subsidies from the state will be issued to participating employers. At this point, DOEsaid only that employers will be in Jacksonville, Tampa and Miami.

The contract process itself remains a work in progress.

The DOE said six additional, yet-to-be-identified vendors were selected from a group of 27 to serve different groups, including persons with traumatic brain injuries and intellectual disabilities.

"The [selection] process used was called an Invitation to Negotiate, so a fixed dollar amount was not required on the bid, but rather a budget proposal which the state agency could negotiate to a more reasonable amount if necessary," said DOE spokeswoman Cheryl Etters.

Under federal guidelines, the vocational rehabilitation program allows expenditures on "innovation and expansion efforts," so this program/contract could be considered to be a pilot program, DOE said.

If the end result is worthy, skeptics question the cost and means of getting there.

For starters, there's the size of the $207,784 third-party contract relative to just 25 temporary positions.

Nonprofit groups that work with the mentally ill suggested that the pact sticks taxpayers with seemingly exorbitant administrative costs. Sources who declined to be identified said specialized employment services are available at little or no cost through a host of nonprofit agencies.

An administrator for one local nonprofit on Florida's East-Central coast wondered whether the state program would provide "therapeutic services as part of the plan, or is it just about getting them back to work? Is Vocational Rehabilitation getting kicked to the curb?"

Wilson, who moved her offices in January from Tallahassee to a Palmetto home she purchased for $800,000 in 2008, says WRI has the experience to do the job right in an employment sector where jobless rates can run up to 80 percent.

She said the intern program will be run by Patrick W. Wear II, Wilson's senior vice president who, according to a company handout, formerly served as commissioner of mental health for Kentucky. Wear is listed on Manatee County property records as the first owner of the 3,457-square-foot Palmetto home that serves as WCI's corporate office.

Wilson's mother, Virginia, is listed on state records as WRI's secretary.

Since incorporating in Florida in 1997, Wilson Resources helped conduct a 2002 study for the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council on hurdles to employment for individuals with developmental disabilities. In 1999 and 2000, WRI produced four statewide teleconferences and associated workbooks on "supported employment services" for FDDC.

Listed in-state public- and private-sector clients include Blue Cross, Nova Southeastern University and Workforce Florida, as well two dozen more out of state.

Wilson's firm also developed two Social Security Administration handbooks:"The Ticket to Work Employment Network Handbook for Employers: Turning Diversity into Dollars" and "Employment Network Handbook for Service Providers: Grow Your Bottom Line by Putting Social Security Beneficiaries to Work."

Yet Wilson's resume lists no academic credentials in mental-health -- and that raises further questions about any special expertise she may have in the field.

Holding a bachelor's degree in sociology and a master's in communications, Wilson completed a course for "certified mental health first-aid instructors," a program of the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare.

"Like journalism, you learn it in the field," the self-described "social entrepreneur" told Sunshine State News.

As for DCF's contractual expectations with WRI, Wilkins said, "Education and training for employers will be a key component of making this working relationship long-term and successful."


Contact Kenric Ward at or (772) 801-5341.

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