ROCK FALLS – Born deaf, Lesley O’Rorke dreams of a life over the road, driving a semitrailer – not just for himself, but for all those who have been told they can’t.
“I want to be an example, to show people they can do it,” he said through sign language interpreter Gary Ven Rooy on Tuesday at Tri-County Opportunities Council in Rock Falls. “Deaf people can do anything, if they put their mind to it.”
Tri-County, along with the Illinois Association of Community Action Agencies, has helped O’Rorke, a 27-year-old Rochelle resident, to the cusp of his dream. Through them, he got his commercial driver’s license at Kishwaukee College, and was recently honored with one of 16 Family of Distinction awards through IACAA.
“Lesley’s disability didn’t deter him from making his dream come true,” said Renee Barnhart, a community outreach specialist with whom O'Rorke worked extensively. “This was a combination effort of so many agencies and the college working together to help Lesley, but he’s essentially the one who made this come true for him. He’s worked so hard and has been so diligent in doing everything I’ve asked him to do. Even though he keeps getting turned down, he’s not giving up. That shows me a passion. He truly wants to do this.”
When he was 13, O’Rorke started going on work trips with his dad, Matt. The open road captivated him.
“It’s been my dream for a long time,” O’Rorke said. “My dad was a truck driver. My uncle, cousins, even my friends were truck drivers, so it fascinated me. I enjoy traveling all over the country, and I like driving big vehicles.”
Let’s address those last two pastimes, one at a time.
To the coast and back
After graduating from Illinois School of the Deaf in Jacksonville, O’Rorke worked for UPS for 2 years, then decided to study mechanics at Rochester (New York) Institute of Technology – a trade school complete with deaf instructors who used sign language. Only problem was, he’d been misled: They didn’t have mechanics there.
So he traveled back home and worked as a mentor for elementary students in the Illinois School of the Deaf district, but didn’t much care for the stress of the job. So he moved back to Rochelle and got a job at Lowe’s Distribution Center. When he said he wanted to operate the forklift, he drew laughs.
“They thought I was joking around,” he said. “But I’ve seen people driving forklifts, and they honk their horn and even hearing people might not listen or hear it. Sometimes, it’s just too noisy.”
He got laid off, leaving his Social Security benefit as his only income.
Then he heard about the Project Employment Program through Tri-County, which is funded by the council's Community Services Block Grant Program.
“I’d never even heard of Tri-County until a friend offered for me to come here for help,” he said. “I thought maybe Tri-County was a different kind of company. I didn’t know it could help me with school. Now I understand.”
Taking the wheel
O’Rorke remembers when he got his driver’s license and asked his dad whether he could drive a truck like him.
“He said he didn’t think the law allowed it,” he said. “I asked him what was in a truck that a hearing person can do that I can’t. I can shift gears. It’s not that much more complicated than a car.”
With help, he was able to get a hearing impairment waiver to get his CDL through Kishwaukee College in Malta.
“I was very excited and looking forward to going back to school,” he said. “I had a lot of questions, and that first week was so exciting.”
The agencies had to work with the school to allocate two interpreters who could handle the required 160 hours of training. A mirror needed to be mounted on the dashboard, but O’Rorke got it done. As of Feb. 3 he was licensed to drive a semi, with a tanker endorsement.
Only problem is – you’ll notice a theme; there’s always a problem – companies that wanted to hire him, even one of them ready to seal the deal, couldn’t get past their insurance providers’ trepidation.
“Several companies have been interested in hiring him, but the insurance won’t cover him because of the liability,” Barnhart said.
Work colleagues have told her there are limits to everything.
“There are ways around everything, and we just have to find the right fit,” she said. “I’m hoping by getting his story out and drawing attention to it, people will realize this is a young man who’s worked very hard and deserves this chance.”
"It just takes one company to have faith in his skills," said Neddie Watts, Tri-County's community services director.
Red light? Green light
O’Rorke doesn’t take “No” for an answer. Although his older brother, Matt, one of his three older siblings, is deaf too, Lesley has always protested to the beat of his own drum.
“It’s been like that for a long time,” he said. “I’ve been very motivated since I was a kid growing up. It’s like a little kid, when mom and dad say no, and the little kid gives them that look.”
Today, Dad is glowing. He couldn’t believe his boy not only got his CDL, but that he’d won such a prestigious award.
“He was very proud,” O’Rorke said. “He was surprised. I was so proud I could prove to him that I could be successful, that I could get my CDL.
“It increased my self-worth, and made people aware I can become successful.”
MORE ABOUT PROJECT EMPLOYMENT
The Project Employment Program helps financially challenged residents get certifications such as commercial driver's license, certified nursing assistant, welding, medical coding and more.
Qualification for the program is based on income over the past 90 days and size of family:
• 1 person: 90-day income of $3,712.50
• 2 people: $5,006.25
• 3 people: $6,300
• 4 people: $7,593.75
• 5 people: $8,887.50
• 6 people: $$10,181.25
• 7 people: $11,478.13
• 8 people: $12,778.13
Visit tcochelps.org or call 815-625-7830 for more information on Tri-County Opportunities Council, which investigates poverty's impact in Whiteside, Lee, Ogle, Carroll, Bureau, LaSalle, Marshall, Putnam and Stark counties, and creates partnerships and programs to address those needs.
CDL COURSE OFFERED AT SAUK
Sauk Valley Community College will offer a 4-week CDL truck driving program Aug. 15 through Sept. 12.
The course will run from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and will combine classroom presentation with hands-on experience leading to a Class A CDL with all endorsements. According to a news release from the college, 99 percent of Sauk students who get their CDL get a job offer. This is the ninth year the college is offering the program.
The program costs $4,270, which includes books. Financial aid might be available through the colllege. Call the Community Education office at 815-835-6212, or visit svcc.edu/bcc for more information, including a complete list of courses offered.