New nationwide partnership offers credential to distinguish vocational rehabilitation leaders

First year’s graduates from 14 states will earn Certified Rehabilitation Leader credential
Abbey Goers | August 23, 2022

Public and private sector vocational rehabilitation agency leaders support counseling professionals and constantly work to improve community inclusion and career development services to assist people with disabilities.

To continue their professional education, VR leaders can now earn a new national industry-recognized Certified Rehabilitation Leader credential offered through UW-Stout’s Vocational Rehabilitation Institute.

Participants in the six-month online National Training Center for Transformational Rehabilitation Leadership program receive training in collaborative, conscious, creative, cultural, inspirational and purpose-driven leadership.

SVRI Director Kyle Walker
SVRI Executive Director Kyle Walker / UW-Stout

“The TRLT curriculum is designed to develop leaders who have the ability to transform organizations to advance the rehabilitation counseling profession and improve system outcomes for people with disabilities,” said SVRI Executive Director Kyle Walker.

The first group of professionals, 17 from eight states, began the TRLT program in January and recently earned their CRL credentials.

Their capstone projects will have meaningful and lasting impacts on their organizations, Walker said.

They represent state VR agencies, the Veterans Administration VR program, a private VR agency, a national center on research materials and the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf Blind Youths and Adults in New York.

UW-Stout M.S. rehabilitation counseling alum Ryan Odland, assistant director of field services at the Helen Keller National Center, believes the program was very impactful.

“The mentor that I had was incredible. He was always available for any questions and offered suggestions. The lessons made me think of ways to be able to apply them in my current employment. The capstone project was great, as it gave me a target of being able to apply what I had learned and write out how to do it with expected outcomes,” he said.

Odland and Chris Woodfill, associate executive director of the Helen Keller Center, completed a joint capstone project regarding their goal to make the center an employer of choice for people with disabilities, Walker explained.

"Their ongoing project is examining the organization’s culture, practices, policies, procedures, climate, systems and other organizational factors to improve equity, diversity and inclusion in their recruitment, hiring, onboarding and continuous recruitment of existing staff to improve employee satisfaction, decrease turnover and improve performance," he said.


West Virginia CRL Cohort with Kyle Walker and Russ Thelin
West Virginia CRL Cohort with SVRI's Kyle Walker and UMass Boston's Russ Thelin / Kyle Walker

The second cohort began in June and will graduate in December. And a third cohort of VR leaders in West Virginia arranged a private cohort. They will graduate in September.

“This training program, without a doubt, has been the best leadership training that I have had the opportunity to receive in my over 30 years in VR,” said Wayne Harman, West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services.

By the end of its first year, 47 participants from 14 states will have completed the TRLT program. The professionals represent VR agencies in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming. 

Registration is open for the fourth cohort, which will begin in January 2023. Eleven professionals are enrolled thus far. The program also counts toward continuing education units to maintain the CRL and offers an alumni peer mentoring program.

The dedicated team behind the program

TRLT is a unique, collaborative nationwide partnership between SVRI, the University of Massachusetts-Boston’s Institute for Community Inclusion, the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification and the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation. SVRI serves as the curriculum home. The CRL credential is managed by the CRCC.

“This program is the product of many contributors, including our partners at UMass-Boston and the CRCC,” Walker said. “This team of partners brought an incredible depth of applied experience, actually leading rehabilitation organizations in various states and settings. This course is really the product of decades of leadership experience that each partner brought to the table.”

Portrait of Terry Donovan
Terry Donovan, SVRI director of education services / UW-Stout

Walker believes the successful launch of the national TRLT program is due to the efforts of four of his colleagues at UW-Stout:

  • Chela Cea, research program coordinator, Office of Research and Sponsored Programs
  • Terry Donovan, SVRI director of education services
  • Jenn Gundlach Klatt, SVRI administrative assistant II
  • Erin Nierenhausen, SVRI senior instructional specialist

“Chela, Erin, Jenn and Terry’s outstanding work made the launch of this new program so successful,” Walker said. “On behalf of our partners at UMass-Boston and CRCC, I thank each of them for their contributions. Their blood, sweat and tears made this program possible.”

Cea worked for more than a year on 24 reading assignments, editing to ensure accuracy and improving the quality of the lessons. The quality of the written curriculum was noted by SVRI’s partners at UMass-Boston, as well as cohort members, Walker said.

Donovan joined the first cohort to gain a participant’s perspective. He conducted program evaluations in real time as the course progressed. Walker believes Donovan’s approach to planning helped set up the program for continuous improvement, making it more user friendly.

Gundlach Klatt created a social media marketing campaign and the TRLT website for registration. She coordinates program applications with CRCC, which requires a separate process for participants’ background checks.


Erin Nierenhausen
Erin Nierenhausen, SVRI senior instructional specialist / UW-Stout

Nierenhausen contributed to the curriculum design, leveraging her own leadership expertise, and served with Walker as a TRLT instructor. She created the course in Canvas, an online learning platform; converted written lessons into recorded audio presentations with PowerPoint slide decks and reference links; addressed accessibility and user issues; provided student feedback; monitored chat rooms; and encouraged participation.

“Erin generally made it possible for our students to complete the course successfully,” Walker said. “Her work was valued enough by CRCC and UMass-Boston that they formally issued her the CRL credential in January, making her one of the first three people to earn the credential nationwide.”

The TRLT program is aligned with UW-Stout’s polytechnic advantage and its three tenets of applied learning, career focus and collaboration. The credential distinguishes graduates within the VR industry.

There are 78 state vocational rehabilitation agencies, as well as agencies in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. The state-federal VR program serves an average of 400,000 people with disabilities each year.

SVRI was formed in 1966 through Department of Health, Education and Welfare federal grants. Located in the Vocational Rehabilitation building on campus, it generates more than $4 million annually through grants, contracts and other federal, state and local partnerships. SVRI provides solutions to positively impact the future of people with disabilities through services, research and education programs that prepare VR professionals.

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