The office of Springfield dentist Dr. Josh Renken is
a friendly, organized place. It strikes the visitor as a kind
of idealized television show set where the employees are
professional, happy and quietly confident. Now, imagine
adding an extraordinary employee with Down Syndrome
and hearing and vision impairments.
What happens to the mix? You actually boost the
enthusiasm, efficiency and profitability of the office, says
Dr. Renken. Plus, who doesn’t want a quick learner who
hates to miss a day of work?
Three days a week, Hannah McNiece, a tiny young
woman with a big grin, steps into the waiting room, calls
a patient by name and greets them with, “Hi, my name is
Hannah. How are you doing today?”
Using a map of photographs as visual cues that match
posters outside each room, she guides each patient to their
appropriate chair, making small talk and asking them about
their day, while attaching the paper bib. And when the
technician sits down with the patient, he or she will find a
tray of supplies and instruments for cleaning or orthodontia
as needed, already carefully prepared by Hannah.
“I realized that I could not expect someone else to
decide to hire my own daughter one day if I didn’t start
figuring out a way to include special needs employees
in my own work environment,” says Dr. Renken, whose
daughter has been diagnosed with two rare disorders . “So
we’ve adapted our workflow. We’ve adapted a whole shape
and color system in our practice. Six months in, Hannah
can already support 60 percent of functions that a typical
clinical assistant could provide.”
In the past, “special education” sequestered children
with challenges. The viewpoint at The Hope Institute is
that children with developmental challenges can certainly
be taught skills to thrive in the world, but also that the
world can be taught how to be more open and inclusive.
Ultimately, Dr. Renken plans to package the workplace
inclusion tips and techniques he’s pioneered into a toolkit,
so that other dental offices, or a bank, or a salon, can follow
his blueprint in hiring employees with special needs. So
that when his eldest daughter Reilly is old enough, it won’t
be unusual for her to find meaningful work in a welcoming
Josh and Leigh Renken’s oldest daughter Reilly was born
with an “affected 21st and 15th chromosome,” a unique
genetic abnormality shared by no one else in the world.
Says Dr. Renken, “When she was born eleven years ago,
geneticists basically told us, ‘we’d like to be able to tell you
based on the experience of others what to expect, but we
don’t know.”
Josh and Leigh were in all-new, terrifying territory.
Then, when Reilly was six, she was also diagnosed with a
type of sleep epilepsy that affects only .01 percent of the
population. “Every year, something new would face us and
we didn’t know how best to be a resource to Reilly. We really
The Renkens have worked closely with Reilly’s
traditional elementary school in Chatham,
which they credit with co-developing a more
inclusive path for their daughter that
allows her to be her social best. As
the family has figured out how
to adapt to each new hurdle,
and Reilly has settled into
a productive, active
life as a fourth
grader, that early
knowing” has never left the Renken’s minds, driving them
to empathetically champion other families facing the same
As he starts his term as President of The Hope
Institute’s board of directors, Dr. Renken says, “There is
still a void and a lot of distress with parents struggling over
what it means to have a child with unique challenges. I think
to the extent that Hope can reach out into the world and
reach those families and provide context, as well as paths
to stability and success, Hope can play an important role in
helping those families feel better about the unique situation
they’re facing.”
Back at work, Hannah is checking off her to-do list for
the day which includes laundry, cleaning the break room
and waiting room, and “doing the colors and shapes for the
trays,” in addition to greeting patients. She gets the same
satisfaction from crossing items off a list as most people do.
“Hannah exceeded all of our expectations that we
thought she could accomplish. Now we’re thinking of
all the things we can do next,” says Dr. Renken. “As a
practice, we’ve worked to make her experiences
as consistent to every other team
member’s experience as
possible. She’s
and learned new things, just like we expect of everybody.”
Next year, Hannah turns 22 and “ages out” of the
formal system of care in place for children with special
needs. That means Hope staffer and job coach, Connie
Jones, will no longer be assigned to shadow Hannah at
work. Dr. Renken’s team is now considering how to create
natural supports inside of his business, so that Hannah will
continue to have whatever assistance she needs to succeed
from their own, internal sources. Those lessons will be
available to other businesses, as well, someday soon.
“Hannah is so motivated, she doesn’t want to miss one
day of work,” says Jones. “This office has welcomed both
of us with open arms.”
If you’re interested in hiring staff through The Hope
Institute’s Vocational Program, you won’t be doing it
alone. Skylar Tierney, Vocational Director, helps match
businesses with the right Hope student, and each employee
is shadowed by a Hope job coach. Inquire further by
contacting Skylar Tierney at (217) 553-5566.
Dr. Renken, job coach Connie Jones, Hannah and CEO Karen G. Foley