It's My Job: "Stalking" for success

Sometimes Valerie Koivunen feels like a stalker. "You're walking around and you're watching individuals. I've been approached, 'Why are you here? What are you doing?' I just tell them I'm supporting the employment of this person," she said. Koivu...

Job coach Valerie Koivunen
Job coach Valerie Koivunen, right, supervises Melody Bauer, a food court attendant at West Acres mall in Fargo. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

Sometimes Valerie Koivunen feels like a stalker.

"You're walking around and you're watching individuals. I've been approached, 'Why are you here? What are you doing?' I just tell them I'm supporting the employment of this person," she said.

Koivunen is a job coach for Friendship Inc. in Fargo. She accompanies individuals with physical or developmental disabilities to their job sites and oversees their work.

"A lot of them wouldn't be able to have a regular job, due to some behaviorisms that might throw off people," she said.

She works where the clients work, when they work. That may be at a store or restaurant early in the morning or at a bar after it closes. She often oversees people cleaning at West Acres. She typically job coaches about six people at any given time.


"I believe a job coach is very essential, especially in the beginning when they're learning a new skill," Koivunen said. "We're helping them acquire this new knowledge. Eventually we fade out of the picture. We're not there as much. It's like a bird learning to fly. They're becoming more independent, and they're so proud of what they've accomplished."

She's been a job coach for four years but has worked in related fields for more than 25 years. She's been a camp counselor, a paraprofessional in special education at a high school and worked at day supports and residential facilities.

"At one time, I thought I would get out of this field, but I think I would miss it too much. Even if I won a lottery, I would still work. I love my job," she said.

Q: What does it mean to be a job coach?

A: I believe that I am a friend. I'm a confidant. I laugh with my individuals; I cry with them. They're almost like extended family. Our core values for Friendship are reverence, compassion, integrity and excellence, and I believe that's very important as a job coach. The reverence, just having respect and dignity for the individuals that I support. It's just been so rewarding.

What do you do?


I make sure they're doing their job. A lot of them have been in the same job for 10 years, so that's a long time. I've never had a job for 10 years.

We just make sure that they're doing their job and not taking shortcuts. Sometimes, after a while, you want to take shortcuts. We're a liaison between the company and the individual and our company.

How do you balance helping the individuals do their job without doing the job for them?

Mostly we're monitoring them. We watch them, and we'll point out things that maybe they missed or look for behaviors that maybe are affecting their job. Just being there and making sure they're doing their job. ... You just kind of give them a verbal cue. What else could have been done here? Did you miss something? What else do you need to do?

Are you with somebody every day they're at their job?

In the beginning, we might be because of the fact that they're learning a new skill. Let's say that we get somebody that is going to be cleaning a restaurant. We'd need to figure out what needs to be done and get them into a routine. Once they learn what they're supposed to do, eventually our role, it becomes more limited.


What are other elements of your job?

Just being there ... if they have a problem.

If they say they want another job, we try to accommodate them. I have helped them do things on the computer in trying to find a job and coordinating. I've gone to an interview with a couple of people.

I'm a liaison with the manager or supervisor. If there are problems, I try to find out what's going on. We want our people to be able to maintain their positions. For the most part, it's an amicable relationship.

What skills does it take to do your job?

You do have to have a certain amount of empathy. You have to have a rapport. And our individuals are all very different and unique. I'm not saying there hasn't been some problems with people before, because that's the way things are - personality conflicts.

I believe a job coach is a key for an individual to become more independent. If they get to the point where they don't need us, that's all well and good. They've reached the finish line. We're there to give them high fives.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556

For more information:

Friendship Inc. is at 801 Page Drive, Fargo. To contact the organization, call (701) 235-8217 or visit

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