Inside the VR Summit pt. 1

Inside the VR Summit pt. 1

The following is an interview with Michael Shoemaker regarding the upcoming 8th Annual Summit conference. The Summit is a conference to promote Performance Management in Vocational Rehabilitation that will occur September 10-11 at the San Diego Mission Valley Marriott. More information can be found at

Michael Shoemaker has worked for the State of Utah for the past 15 years and the Utah State Office of Rehabilitation (USOR) for 13 years. At USOR, he has served as Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor, Supervisor and Program Planning and Evaluation Specialist. He firmly believes that through the effective practice of performance management and program evaluation in state Vocational Rehabilitation agencies that more people with disabilities can be benefit from Vocational Rehabilitation programs by obtaining employment and greater independence. Vocational Rehabilitation professional that earnestly work to improve services can be the difference that makes the difference for people with disabilities.

Donald Alveshere (DA): Michael, how did the idea for hosting the Summit come to be?

Michael Shoemaker (MS): The Summit Group began in September 2007. When I moved at the Utah State Office of Rehabilitation into my position as Program Planning and Evaluation Specialist in June 2007, my direct supervisor, Kyle Walker by request from Don Uchida, the Executive Director of the Utah State Office of Rehabilitation, encouraged me to start contacting different states and find out what they were doing regarding best practices in program evaluation and quality assurance.

I began calling surrounding states and recording teleconference calls with other state vocational rehabilitation program evaluators. My first call was with Brian Hickman from Wyoming’s Vocational Rehabilitation Program. These calls generally lasted about an hour and a half. I would present these calls as a way that Utah could share with them what we do in regards to their consumer satisfaction survey, comprehensive statewide needs assessment, case file review activities and client focus groups and to give the other state the opportunity to share what they do with these program evaluation activities as well. These conversations turned out to be an excellent form of continuing education for me and appeared to help others to connect with new ideas.

One of the standard questions that I would ask during those initial calls would be, "What resources or training do you turn to when you are developing a new or revised tool in quality assurance?" One common response is the evaluator did what their predecessor did without any changes. Another common response was that they would develop the tool themselves internally with administrators from their state agency that likely had a limited knowledge of program evaluation practices and methodology. The most common response was a long pause.

After speaking with 11 different states, it was clear that very few state agencies had any interstate contact or collaboration. Based on this information, I was inspired to propose a face-to-face forum where program evaluators could get together and discuss similar issues questions and concerns. Then, I went back to his supervisor and eventually it went to Don Uchida, to request permission to host a Summit in September 2008. My supervisor asked me to contact back the 11 (that were part of a new email listserv) and to ask each if they would be interested in coming to such a Summit. All 11 wrote back indicating that they would like to come. This came as a great and pleasant surprise. The most amazing thing is that they all did come to the 1st Summit which was held at The Quality Inn in Salt Lake City, Utah on September 25th and 26th, 2008. Dr. Michael Millington from the National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials, Scott Sabella from the Region VIII TACE Center and David Vandergoot were major collaborators on how to move forward with the idea of a community of practice. I count the Summit Group, the community of practice that developed out of the 1st Summit as a great blessing.

DA: What have you seen as the biggest positives that have occurred through the Summit conferences?

MS: There is quite a list of positives that have occurred through the Summit events and really each individual Summit Group member would have their own unique response to this question. Here is one observation as I have attended all of the annual Summit events. Often a first time attendee shows some timidity and perhaps a little fear about often their new roles and responsibilities and especially the technical aspects of their position. Over time, if this same person continues to attend the annual Summit, they connect and develop ongoing relationships with other professionals throughout the year and often decide participate in other Summit Group activities such as Summit Reading Groups, inquiries, webinars, etc. Once they have grown in knowledge, experience, expertise and their professional network by the 4th or 5th year they come prepared to co-present with other professionals at the Summit and encourage new evaluators to start their own learning paths. It is satisfying to observe this developmental pattern over time and how community of practice members naturally take on mentoring relationships. Dr. Scott Sabella and I coined a phrase once that describes where attendees can find themselves if they take on their own program of continuing education to improve their professional practice. We call it “credible competence.” A goal of this community of practice is that all Vocational Rehabilitation Program Evaluators will act with credible competence in their roles within state Vocational Rehabilitation agencies.

Even through small and simple things can great things come to pass. Through associations at the annual Summit and adding the employment opportunities section to the Summit Group website several of our Summit Group members who have found themselves out of work have through networking with other Summit Group members have found satisfying employment and state Vocational Rehabilitation agencies have more easily found qualified applicants. When I think that what started as a group of 11 professionals now has the positive influence of helping multiple families to have the income to be financially self-reliant, I have confidence that we are on the right track.

The following are responses from three actually attendees of what they gained from attending the Summit.

  • "I am fairly new to the VR system and oversee the planning and evaluation position. This was very informative as I now have a better picture of what the job entails and has given me some great direction on how to assist my employees be successful as well as the system overall.”
  • “Almost every presenter was on the mark in addressing the goals (subject areas) of the Summit. They precipitated provocative dialogue that resulted in several great ideas that I can take back to my state.”
  • “This was an excellent conference and the planning committee was very professional and courteous. The Summit gave all participants a chance to network with other state agencies.”

DA: Who are the typical attendees?

MS: Unlike some annual events or conferences, attendance is not determined by work position or role. Communities of practices are based on shared interests. The three main groups of attendees include Vocational Rehabilitation Program Evaluators, individuals from academic or research institutions and administrators of state Vocational Rehabilitation programs. Also, we have had representatives attend from private rehabilitation, Goodwill Industries, community health clinics and individual professionals that want to learn about a particular topic. A couple of years ago we greeted at the Summit a medical professional from India and this year we will have a professor present who teaches in Taiwan.

DA: What has you most excited for the conference this year?

MS:This is easy for me to respond to. I am a futurist. The most exciting Summit for me is the one that is yet to come. We have accepted bids for the 2016 and 2017 Summits, and we have expressed interest from one state to host the 2018 Summit.

Stay tuned for pt. 2 coming later this week!

About the Author

Don Alveshere

Don Alveshere

Don Alveshere is currently the Aware Product Manager for Alliance Enterprises. Prior to that he was the Administrator for the Idaho Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and Assistant Director for the Washington Department of Services for the Blind.

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