When an employee is injured on the job, the process of recovering and returning back to work can often be a trying and confusing time. They can feel disconnected from their employer and develop a sense of isolation.

That’s why return-to-work programs such as ReEmployAbility’s Transition2Work® are so beneficial. Since 2007, Transition2Work has placed thousands of injured employees at local nonprofit organizations across the nation to perform light duty work when their pre-injury employer cannot accommodate their physical restrictions on-site. John Keith’s story is an example of how getting out of the house and contributing to the community plays a huge role in the recovery process.

John’s Story

For the past nine years John worked as a general laborer in a laborer’s union. He was used to continuous arduous work that kept him constantly moving. One day, while on assignment laying pipe, he slipped on wet terrain and tore a disc in his lower back.

Because of his injury, John could not return to his normal position as a laborer. Though he was told his recovery would take a long time, he was soon released to modified duty where he was given instruction not to lift over 20 pounds.

As he completed his physical and occupational therapy, his employer tried to make accommodations by giving him light activities around the office. When John ran out of things to do around the office he had to continue his recovery at home.

Though John’s injury was physical, as he sat around his house waiting for new assignments from his employer, he began to notice that there was also a mental toll that he faced.

I started to question my sense of self-worth at times,” he said. “I began to get depressed and withdrawn. It’s like, now where am I going to go? What am I going to do? It took everything I could do to stay positive.”

That is when his company reached out to ReEmployAbility and referred him to the Transition2Work program. Not knowing much about the program, John was a little apprehensive at first. However, he was excited for the opportunity to get out of the house and do something. In hindsight, he said he couldn’t have asked for a better situation.

“Most people who know me, know I am a fidgety guy who likes to stay busy,” John said.  “I was starting to go a little crazy sitting idle. You have to understand, I am used to going 100 miles per hour. Going from that to zero in just a matter of days was really tough on me. I was just chomping at the bit to do something.”

The Transition2Work program placed John at his local American Red Cross chapter in Minnesota. Because of their reputation, he was extremely grateful for the opportunity to work with the Red Cross.


The American Red Cross Assignment

Over the years the American Red Cross has become synonymous with disaster recovery. Executive Director of the Northern Minnesota chapter of the Red Cross, Dan Williams, explained there are five areas that local chapters of the organization focus on nationwide:

  • Disaster works – preparedness and recovery
  • Health and safety training – CPR & First Aid
  • Working with the armed forces and veterans
  • International relief & humanitarian services
  • Collect blood

John with Dan Williams, Director of the Northern Minnesota chapter of the Red Cross

Dan said that though the organization’s efforts may sound demanding, there is plenty for volunteers suffering from work related injuries to do.

“Our ReEmployAbility volunteers have helped tremendously around the office,” Dan said. “A program we’re proud of is our Holiday Cards for Heroes in which we collect holiday cards from around the country and distribute them to active duty military and veterans. There are also data entry opportunities, in which the volunteers help streamline the volunteer process for those joining different chapters across the country.”

Dan recognizes that there are benefits that go beyond the organization. He said he has seen the impact that volunteering has made on each volunteer the Transition2Work program has provided him.

“If someone feels like they’re doing something meaningful, they’re more likely to feel better about themselves…they’re more likely to be out moving,” Dan said. “These injured workers are more likely to recover quicker if they are up and moving, rather than sitting around on the couch. Helping their community is a bonus. They know they are making a difference and it shows in their interactions every day.”

Because John’s injuries only restrict him from lifting over 20 pounds, he is able to do a little more than office work and with his employer’s permission, he is often out in the field participating in the chapter’s Home Fire Campaign (HFC). In this program, John and his team of three other volunteers install smoke detectors to at-risk homes in need. This team has installed over 1,800 smoke detectors, reducing the chance of a home fire death for these families by 25 percent.

The DAT responding to the refinery explosion in April. Photo Credit – John Keith

Though John said that the HFC program is almost a full-time job on its own, he is also part of the Disaster Assessment Team (DAT). Whenever there is a disaster in the area, such as a fire, flood or tornado, this team heads out within the first 24-48 hours and meets with those who are displaced and offers them financial and emotional support.

Most recently, John’s team responded to the refinery explosion that made national headlines. They brought food and supplies to the first responding firefighters who were controlling the fire.

“The DAT program is very rewarding,” John said. “Every time I have assisted in a disaster recovery, I have walked away with a sense of accomplishment. I feel like I have left a little piece of me with everyone I have helped. It is a very compassionate organization. That’s a good word for what the Red Cross does – compassion.”

Community Impact & Recovery

John is facing a long recovery, but he said he feels volunteering at the Red Cross has sped the process up. He said that half, if not three-quarters of the process is mental state of mind and doing positive things in the community helps lead to a quicker recovery.

“I can’t thank the Red Cross enough for giving me this opportunity. It’s been a godsend, is the best way I can put it. Helping other people in the community and being around such a positive environment such as the Red Cross is a natural anesthetic. It kind of makes you forget about your pain until the process is done,” he explained.

John said volunteering at the Red Cross has changed his life completely. He said he is a “lifer” and plans on volunteering even after he returns back to work. His time at the Red Cross has even impacted those around him. It has inspired his daughter to volunteer as well.

I can’t be grateful enough for the Transition2Work program,” he said. “I don’t know where I would have been, if you hadn’t placed me with the Red Cross. It only took me about two weeks to start to feel kind of depressed given the whole situation. It wasn’t a week after I joined the Red Cross that I was a brand-new man.”

The Transition2Work program has helped thousands of other injured workers just like John. To date, Transition2Work program participants have provided approximately 6.5 million volunteer hours to local and national nonprofit organizations. If you would like to volunteer at your local Red Cross, visit their website and find your nearest location.