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She's The First Person You Meet

"Good Afternoon, Elizabeth Frye Society," Denise Sanders has a warm and gentle way of putting others at ease. That is important, because many of the people calling the Central Okanagan Elizabeth Frye Society where she works are struggling through crises.

The Elizabeth Frye Society helps women involved in the justice system and women and children victims of sexual abuse and assault. Denise is the first person they encounter when they phone or walk through the agency's door.

"We have so many programs here," Denise smiles. "It took me a while to get to know everyone and what they do. My job is to minimize the frustration of people who have been looking all over town for resources and don't want to hear about another set of initials or another program for which they don't qualify. They want to get to someone who can help them with the smallest possible amount of confusion or bureaucracy."

Denise has been on the job since last July. Her organizational skills, along with her welcoming personality, are the key to her success.

"I don't have any experience with computers, so I do everything using "low" technology. I have community resource information Brailled in loose-leaf note books. I take messages on my Perkins Brailler and type them on an electric typewriter. I put the print and Braille messages together so that I can answer any questions if a colleague needs more information."

Denise has had a variety of jobs since finishing high school in 1980. She has worked in other offices and for answering services. For several years she had her own answering service. She closed the business a few years ago because she wanted to move to another town.

"I started looking for work last spring. The Elizabeth Frye Society advertised for a receptionist in the newspaper I picked up an application packet and applied through the normal channels. I was not subsidized in any way. People at the Elizabeth Frye Society were very open in finding ways for me to do the required work."

When she isn't answering phones, Denise is using the photo copier or the fax machine. She uses the postage meter to stamp the agency's outgoing mail. "All the machines are very straightforward. They have buttons rather than touch panels, which means that I didn't have to do any labeling. I can't read the postal scale, but I have done enough mailing to be able to guess the weight of each item very accurately."

Denise is responsible for the agency's filing system. File folders and sections of the cabinet have all been labeled in Braille. "Every file folder is numbered and I have a Brailled master list of all the files. We have volunteers who work in the office from time to time. They helped me put print labels and colour codes along with my Braille. Another staff member who needs to find a document can retrieve it if necessary. If there are any problems, they come to me and I can generally find what they need."

Denise is unusual in that she does not use a computer. "I am going to be getting a Braille Lite. That will make it easier for me to update my resource list. I will also be able to take minutes of team meetings. I take them in Braille now and type them on the electric typewriter. It will be easier to make corrections using the Braille Lite. Eventually, once I have mastered computer concepts on the Braille Lite I will probably get a desktop computer using commercial software and a speech program and synthesizer. That is probably about a year down the road."

Denise has an Arkenstone system on her desk for identifying mail and reading short documents. "It doesn't do very well with faxes. A lot of them come out garbled. Even so, the machine is useful if I understand its limitations and don't try to make it do what it cannot."

Denise, the staff and volunteers at the Elizabeth Frye Society continue to find new ways of making use of Denise's talents. "If something needs to be done, we all think about ways that I can do it, the whole agency is going through some exciting restructuring. We have begun a new non-hierarchical decision-making structure. We are all very excited about what it will mean to everyone here. It's nice to work at a place where roles are not rigid. My blindness is just one of my characteristics. It needs to be taken into account, but so do all my other strengths and weaknesses. This is a place committed to building on people's strengths."

Janna Francis, an agency facilitator, described the interviewing process when Denise was employed. "I am not sure of the number, but I think we had over one hundred applications. We were interested in Denise because of her answering service experience. We knew she was blind, and we weren't quite sure how she would perform her duties. So we asked her. She had a reasonable answer for every question. She is very creative and wants to know and do everything. She is a very important part of setting the tone around here. We are lucky to have her."