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Annual ‘Night for Networking’ links workers with disabilities, Portland employers

Note to Editors: Wes Studer and Vail Horton are available for interviews about their experiences with Night for Networking. Media are also welcome at the Oct. 16 event.

After his college graduation in 2009, Wes Studer, who has Asperger's syndrome, spent weeks and months sending out resumes. He did informational interviews with people who would meet with him. He looked for work in any and every way he could.

He never found a permanent job.

Then, last year, he went to an unusual event — a job "networking" event hosted by Oregon Health & Science University and sponsored and attended by dozens of companies and government agencies with offices in the Portland area. The annual event, called Night for Networking, is specifically for individuals with disabilities who are looking for work, and for Portland-area employers looking for good employees who also increase the diversity of their workforce.

By the end of the night last year, Studer had a lead on a real job. Several weeks later, he was working for Kaiser Permanente as a "patient access specialist" — a job he still has and loves.

"It's all about putting a face with a name, and about offering employers a chance to get to know you and getting an idea of what kind of employee you could be for their organization," Studer says of his experience last year. "It was a great opportunity -- a great opportunity."

This year, the third Night for Networking is set for 6 to 9 p.m. on Oct. 16 at OHSU's Center for Health and Healing at 3303 S.W. Bond Ave. in Portland's South Waterfront neighborhood.

More than 20 Portland and Oregon employers are sponsoring and participating in the event this year, including OHSU, the U.S. Forest Service, Metro regional government, Mentor Graphics and Portland General Electric.

"The first time I came to the event I was knocked cold by its professionalism, by its classiness," said Vail Horton, chief executive officer of Keen, a Portland company that sells durable medical equipment and other safety and mobility products for people with disabilities and the elderly. Keen has participated in the event for each of the event's three years.

"Any business is looking for great people. And this event has great people," said Horton, who himself was born without legs and has underdeveloped arms. "They just happen to be disabled. But businesses are craving exceptional people — and there are gems of people there who will make great employees.”

The goal of the event is to give employers a chance to meet people with disabilities who are searching for work and are qualified for a wide range of jobs, said Dean Westwood, OHSU’s disability awareness training coordinator and co-founder and co-chairman of the event. But another goal is to create an opportunity for individuals with disabilities to have a professional networking event that is more like traditional professional networking events — with adult beverages, a more professional feel and top-flight employers, said Westwood.

“Every year, the people who participate in this event benefit from the networks they initiate or build upon," said Michael Tom, OHSU's director of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity and the event’s other co-founder and co-chairman. "We really want to create a community event that connects jobs and opportunities with these talented individuals who just happen to have disabilities. For the attending employers, there is also the benefits of increasing workforce diversity and understanding of those with disabilities.”

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