Rehab news spoke with outgoing VRS Assistant Commissioner Jim Harris III and incoming VRS Assistant Commissioner James Myrick a week before Harris’s retirement. A transcript of that conversation follows:
RN: Jim, you’ve been with our department for 39 years. What does “rehabilitation” mean to you?
Harris: Rehabilitation is changing people’s lives – plain and simple. That’s a job that’s done by our dedicated and professional staff out in the field. It’s not a job done by ELT (the Executive Leadership Team), and it’s not something done out of our home office.
RN: And looking back, how would you like to be remembered by your peers?
Harris: I know you are looking for something profound, but I really just want to be known as someone who served and cared.
RN: James, as you look forward to assuming your position as assistant commissioner, what do you bring to this position that is new or different?
Myrick: Well, let’s back up for a bit. Like Jim, I too have had a long career in rehabilitation. I started my career in 1979, and I enjoy working with people who need help. My career eventually led me to the home office to work with staff to try to improve quality of care to benefit the people we serve. That’s all to say that I’m not really new to any of this. I do feel, however, that I am in a unique position right now to guide VR. Over the years, we’ve had some great leaders: Dean Akin, Steve Shivers, Jim Harris III … To follow those giants of Rehab is a wonderful opportunity. The mentorship of Harris, especially, has provided me the tools and knowledge base to keep doing great things for VR for years to come.
RN: Jim, how has rehabilitation changed over the course of your career?
Harris: When I first started out as a counselor, clients were not nearly as involved with the rehabilitation process. That’s before regulations came down that created the SRAC – State Rehabilitation Advisory Council. Further regulations in 2001 shortened that to SRC (State Rehabilitation Council), but they are chiefly responsible for making VR so focused on the client. So, client involvement is one way rehab has changed. Another is the rapid advance of technology. People are driving today with technology who years ago never would have been able to get behind the wheel.
RN: And how do you think VR will change going forward?
Myrick: There are tremendous challenges for our future, and our department needs to be flexible to change alongside those challenges. We will always accomplish our mission of assisting persons with disabilities in achieving their maximum potential, and we will embrace more ways to do that. I would expect even more client involvement and even bigger advances in technology, but what’s important is we always need to be open to new ways to serve our consumers.
Harris: Something in particular is the WIOA – Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. It’s a brand new piece of legislation designed to help job seekers access employment, education, training, and support services, and we’ve yet to see how that all plays out. There’s always a big challenge with a new set of regulations, and new laws always bring periods of uncertainty.
Myrick: And another issue is funding. Our department regularly faces fiscal challenges, and we might get caught up in the minutiae of how to maintain a certain program as we know it today. Really, though, we need to look at the big picture of how that program affects the persons of this state. This point is clear: We will continue to serve all citizens of this state. That is what we set out to do every day.
RN: Jim, in your view, what single thing that you’ve done from this office that has made the greatest impact on the department?
Harris: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is the creation of our sliding scale. Our services have always been contingent on financial needs. Back when I was a counselor, counselors and consumers sat down together and filled out a standard financial form that listed assets, liabilities, income, and expenses. This form was to derive a financial need, but it was wildly inaccurate. Inconsistencies of this form would lead two different counselors to two different results, and – as you can guess – there was no level field. Consumers complained whenever they noticed the discrepancies, and the old system just needed to change. Some of the newer counselors here won’t see the difference, because the sliding scale is all they know, but our seasoned veterans understand. In all the years since its implementation, I’ve only received one complaint about the fairness of it. Of course, I was only one part of an entire team of individuals that worked to establish the scale we now use, but that’s definitely something that I’m proud of, because us old dogs remember how bad it once was.
RN: Hearing Jim explain his impact on VR, how do you plan to first make your mark as assistant commissioner, James?
Myrick: I really want to attune myself to the needs of our staff, go out and connect with our people, work on a shared vision, and gain a better perspective of VR at the ground level. How can we do better? How can we be better? These are questions that we all need to ask ourselves daily. My first order of business is to reinvest in our staff the concept of service from the heart. I’m speaking generally now, but people like Jim or me are a dying breed. You don’t often see people give 30, 35, 40 years of their life to one job. Speaking of which, what we do isn’t a job as much as it is a calling. To really do what we do well, you need to have a desire to make a difference. This career path we’ve all chosen takes true passion, and I’m making it a priority to instill that passion again.
RN: What’s our greatest asset?
Harris: Our greatest asset is always our people. Don’t get me wrong, owning this (the State Office/Montgomery office) building is great, too – have you ever seen the old building? – but our staff are, without a doubt, our best asset.
RN: James, I opened asking Jim what rehabilitation means to him. I’ll close by asking you the same question.
Myrick: Rehabilitation is a mindset of devotion and commitment to better the lives of those who are less fortunate and to help them to enjoy the same level of independence and achieve the same level of productivity in their lives.
Harris: I just want to add that I feel that VR is well positioned for James to assume my role as assistant commissioner. We both have a hands-on approach and share the same level of commitment to seeing our consumers achieve their dreams. I’d love to be a fly on the wall in his first few weeks as assistant commissioner. He’s come to be someone who I depend on and view as a problem solver. I’ve always been abreast of the big picture, and that’s something that will remain after I leave.