HARRISONBURG — Chris Hall can recall a time when he left his house maybe once a month.
But now, Hall, 31, works as a case packer for snack-size Almond Joy and Mounds candy bars on line 37 of the Hershey plant in Stuarts Draft almost every day of the week.
Hall suffers from several severe mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress and dissociative disorders, but found his way into the workforce through the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center’s programs.
“It has quite literally turned my life around,” Hall said.
The WWRC is a vocational and rehabilitation facility based in Fishersville for those with disabilities to gain skills and get jobs.
Hall graduated from there with a plethora of certifications, including ones in business, manufacturing and forklift driving. Immediately after graduating, he was offered a full-time job.
“It’s crazy,” he said. “I saw within a year I went from having nothing to getting my learner’s permit, driver’s license, my own car.”
And he drives his 2016 Toyota Corolla from his home in Lexington one hour to work at the Hershey plant in Stuarts Draft.
Hall had a turbulent childhood, living with only his mother in a trailer on his grandparents’ property in Lexington until the age of 8, when he discovered his mother’s body after she had died.
He then went to live with his grandparents. But Hall was an “angry and out of control child” after the incident with his mother, he said, and was sent by the courts to a group home in Covington.
Hall would go to group homes for several years then return to live with his grandparents and then would be sent back to group homes.
“They couldn’t handle me,” he said. “They were old, and I was young and had a lot of issues.”
Hall’s grandfather, his only male role model, died from cancer when Hall was 15. The loss of his grandfather led to him acting out in school more, and he was shortly kicked out.
This trend of going between group homes and his grandparents’ home continued until the age of 18, when he returned to live with his grandmother.
And as he grew older, he only became more isolated.
“For a long time, I was battling a lot anxiety and depression and was trapped within my own mind,” he said.
This was the point in his life where he would leave the house maybe once a month.
After 11 years living in this dark place, Hall found out about WWRC, and enrolled at the age of 29, hoping the dorm life would improve his social skills.
Hall ended up taking a variety of courses and applied to numerous places. Initially, his application was auto-removed from the Hershey system because of his lack of experience, but an instructor, Jim Leech, helped to contact Hershey.
From there, Hall had an interview that went much better than he expected, and he was offered a job through the Abilities First Program at Hershey.
“The motto is equal work, equal pay, equal expectations,” Hall said.
The Stuarts Draft plant began the Abilities First Program in 2013, according to Karen D. Van Curen, senior human resources manager for the plant.
“The program is designed to partner closely with local agencies to support the additional support and training necessary to help an individual with disabilities to be successful in the work environment,” she said in an email.
Though not all manufacturing jobs are suitable for workers with disabilities, many are, Van Curen said.
The retention rate of the Abilities First Program is 83%, she said.
“We prefer to focus on the abilities people have rather than the disabilities people may have,” Van Curen said.
Individuals with disabilities “are loyal to their companies. They are worth the investment,” she said. “Our workforce is so supportive of our Abilities First Program.”
Hershey has sent Hall around the country to talk about his experience at various events and to advocate for the hiring of workers with disabilities, he said.
And Hall is only happy to do so.
“If I have the outlets to speak, I want to show people with disabilities can do things,” he said. “We can do this job and shouldn’t be coddled.”
Hall still lives with his grandmother, whom he now takes care of.
“She’s been through a lot,” he said. “She’s all I have, and I’m all she has.”
He also likes to spend what free time he has with her, as well as playing video games and board games, reading and watching TV.
At work, Hall finds himself surprised sometimes at how quickly it goes. And he gets along well with his co-workers, for the most part, he said.
“I’m able to joke, laugh, have a good time,” he said, but “I still have the anxiety and awkwardness that comes with that.”
Many of his co-workers are surprised when they find out about his circumstances, he said.
“They never would’ve guessed I’m disabled,” he said.