Nonprofit staffing agency will focus on people with disabilities

Dianna Howell had never had trouble gaining steady employment, until she experienced a rude awakening at a job interview a year after she underwent open heart surgery.

She was a full-time student at George Fox University. Her potential employer wanted to know why her resume reflected a year-long gap in her work history. She informed her interviewers of her surgery.

“They said, ‘Well this is a really stressful job,’ and the room just got ice cold,” Howell recalled. “They didn’t say anything, but I didn’t get hired for a job that, until that point, I thought was a shoo-in.”

Whether it’s someone with a medical condition, an adult with autism or a military veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, Howell believes employers want to hire people with disabilities but are afraid of the unknown.

“People want to do the right thing,” she said. “Everybody wants to support our soldiers that are coming back, especially the ones that have been wounded, but for a company to take on somebody that may need accommodation — especially if you’re a small business — is hard.”

Howell and longtime colleague Sue Legler plan to take the risk out of the equation with a new staffing agency, BlueSun Inc. Opening Friday at 517 S.W. Second St., the nonprofit business will coordinate vocational resources, such as job training and special equipment, for people with disabilities to place them in jobs best suited for their skills.

Employees will be sent in as temporary workers under BlueSun for a trial period. If it’s a good fit, employers can directly hire them.

The state of Oregon requires all tax-supported bodies to give nonprofits like BlueSun the first rights to fill jobs.

Howell and Legler met at one of those state-certified nonprofits, DePaul Industries. They were both placed in jobs at OSU through DePaul because of disability — health issues that required accommodations. The state has a legal definition of disability, but in general, Howell said, it’s anything that has a significant impact on one’s ability to work.

Howell and Legler eventually joined DePaul Industries. As area manager from 1996 to 2001, Howell worked closely with several large employers.

National corporation Barrett Business Services Inc. sought out Howell, who left DePaul Industries in November 2001 for a position with Barrett. Legler, who was DePaul’s Corvallis branch manager, followed Howell in March 2002.

A year or two later, DePaul Industries closed its Corvallis branch, covering the area from Eugene and Salem branches. DePaul Industries got first crack at filling jobs for such employers as OSU and LBCC, but the nonprofit wasn’t always able to do so, leaving openings that Barrett filled.

“We were, as a for-profit, filling quite a few of the jobs over the years that should have gone to the nonprofits,” Howell said. “That was a lot of opportunities for people who really needed those jobs.“

The need is definitely there, Howell said.

“We have customers lined up, breathing down our necks saying, ‘When are you going to be open?’ and we have the people,” she said.

Howell and Legler had talked about forming the business for years, but the opportunity didn’t present itself until last year. The LBCC Foundation wanted to loan money to an entrepreneur to start a business that’s in line with its mission. Howell’s business plan was independently reviewed and accepted.

BlueSun will serve all people with disabilities, she said, but the focus will be helping military veterans and people with autism.

“LBCC funded us, and OSU and LBCC are our first customers and going to be our biggest supporters, but we have had a huge response from the community for the soldiers,” Howell said.

She projects that BlueSun will generate enough revenue in the first year to pay back LBCC’s loan and to begin sponsoring grants for clothes, transportation and other things that will help people with disabilities get to work.

Howell is heading the company, Legler is in charge of placing people in jobs and Howell’s son, Brandon Howell, will serve as a customer service representative. As a 25-year-old with autism, he will also play a special role as peer-to-peer counselor and inspiration for others with autism.

The inspiration behind the company’s name?

It’s a reference from science-fiction television series Firefly, Dianna Howell said.

“BlueSun was the organization that quietly changed the universe,” she said. “It was for evil, but we’re going to do it for good. We plan to take all of the pieces — we plan to take government and education and the business community and put those pieces together to work for the good.”

Reporter Canda Fuqua can be reached at 541-758-9548 or

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