Shawnie Rechtenbaugh, Department Secretary

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spotlight on people

The Division of Rehabilitation Services is featuring testimonials of South Dakotans with disabilities who've successfully achieved employment or other accomplishments in their lives. Enjoy reading the following spotlights:


Ability for Hire Stories: Ben Higgens 

Ben Higgens

When it comes to providing Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) services, the South Dakota Department of Human Services values the benefit it can bring to individuals with disabilities in securing and maintaining employment. Through a fleet of fantastic counselors, VR can be a true game-changer for South Dakotans with disabilities entering the workforce.

Here’s one such story, where high schooler Ben—interested in studying psychology and becoming a counselor himself one day—secured a job with the Groton Daily Independent newspaper.

What do you love most about your current job?

Ben Higgens
The independence is what I like the most. (Supervisor) Paul (Kosel) is very lenient with what I can do and what I should be doing. Also, having a general structure is really good for someone with my disability.
Becky Erickson (Teacher)
The whole thing started because of COVID. Finding employment opportunities within the community that would allow to go throughout the school year was difficult. And I knew this would be a good match. Finding a job that didn’t necessarily need a ton of community interaction and being able to keep him in school, but still interact with Paul was kind of how it started.
Paul Kosel
We kept talking, and I started giving Becky some ideas. We got everything accomplished.
With Ben’s autism, pushing him out of his comfort zone with the interviewing has been excellent. He takes that into his strength, which is writing, so it’s combining something that was a need with something that was a strength.

What drew you to this field of work?

I’ve always had a particular passion and proficiency for writing and the English language, which has been very helpful. Just being able to type out other people’s experiences has been great, because most of my English beforehand has just been about myself. Being able to express what other people want to express is part of the position.

Ben Higgens

What educational achievements do you hope to have in the future?

I’m hoping to take some more dual-credit courses at the local university, get some more credits for college and hopefully going to go into psychology with a minor in mental health counseling. It deviates a little from the whole English skillset, but it’s something I want to be able to do and I’m willing to learn. Being able to help people is a big draw. But also being able to help myself find a way. With psychology it’s about understanding how the brain functions in social environments. As someone who has autism, it’s a big part of my life. Being able to understand how my own brain functions to be able to understand theirs is something I want to be able to do.

How does it make you feel to go to work each day?

I’ve interacted with a lot of the teachers here as part of my education. Being able to know how they came to get here has always been a point of interest for me. I like hearing people’s stories and being able to connect them to my own and spread them around to other people. Being able to tell a story is a great boon—it’s part of being a good journalist and being able to help others relate to what someone is going through, how they got to this position. I’m happy I can do it.

What do you like most about working with your VR counselor?

Alicia (Dohn) has been very helpful. She’s been a great support structure. Since she has gone down the counseling career path, it’s been especially nice to have someone sort of on the inside who can advise and tell me what skills I’ll need.
She’s very hands-on. She’s here once a week or every other week, constant contact, checking in. She also gives you the flexibility as teachers, too, to be able to know our kids. She’s just always researching to find ways for us to help our kids, too. An awesome asset.

What makes you a great employee?

Communication—I like to stay in touch with Mr. Kosel as much as I can. Other than that, I think I do my job fairly well and I try to keep in contact.
I had Ben take some pictures at a basketball game. He picks up things so fast. You tell him one thing, he takes it to heart. That really impressed me. Not everybody can just grab a camera and capture it. When Ben sent me his first email, I looked at it and said, “this kid is intelligent.” I thought, I’m not sure how to reply to him! I think I spent two days going through a thesaurus trying to match up to his email. He’s very intelligent. It really challenged me to try to come up to his level. Ben is very smart. He’s going to go far if he puts his mind to it.

What do you appreciate most about earning a paycheck?

What I appreciate most is being able to build something myself. Being able to have a little bit of independence with the results of my work—it’s very rewarding. It’s one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve felt, getting that first paycheck.

What are your goals in your future career?

Hopefully working as a therapist or as an assistant to a therapist. Working in the field of psychology, maybe doing a couple papers. Helping people as much as I can. People dealing with anxiety need a lot of support structures, which has especially been revealed through the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s very prevalent, and I think that if it’s something I could help address, I would. There are so many people suffering silently.

To find out more about the SD VR program, click here.