Not everyone can do what Verna Morris does. Much in the same way that not many local agencies can do what QUEST does.

As the executive director of QUEST Inc — or Quality Employment Services and Training — Morris certainly is charged with her share of paper work, red tape and administrative duties. But what makes Morris good at what she does is her heart.

“If somebody references ‘them’ and ‘us’, if that’s your mindset — that they’re [clients] different — it’s difficult to change,” said Morris. “We’re all people first. If you can’t accept that, it’s probably not going to work out. They [clients] have a heart and we have a heart. Some people can’t do it.”

Morris’ clients, she says, are no different than you and I.

“They might just have a need that I don’t have,” she continued. “Everyone has need. At QUEST, everyone can use anything. Everyone is part of who we are. Everyone deserves to have an everyday life. It’s so refreshing working with companies who want to have a diverse work force.”

Morris, a 68-year-old native of Denver, Colo., has headed QUEST for the past 11 years. Locally, QUEST is known for providing employment opportunities, training and support for area residents who are affected with a variety of physical, mental and emotional challenges — disabilities like autism, Down syndrome and blindness.

Morris has been leading QUEST for the past 11 years. (Photo provided)

But QUEST, which is located at 704 Metro Drive in South Lebanon Township, is so much more. While it may have been started as a way to support the local community, QUEST has become an integral part of it.

“I was a teacher,” said Morris. “I had done an internship in a home for children with disabilities. I got a soft spot in my heart when I did that. I hadn’t done anything like that before. It just kind of got in my blood. I realized I was destined to do this.

“The interactions with the people we support is absolutely the best part about it,” Morris continued. “Any day, you can be having a bad day, and they can lift you up. They’re almost always having a good day. They’re people enjoying their lives the best they can.”

QUEST features an adult training program, employment services and home and community habilitation services. In addition, QUEST offers services in the areas of catering, janitorial and lawn care.

On the average, QUEST supports about 150, mostly Lebanon County, residents a year.

“They’re adults, generally 18 to 60, with needs,” said Morris. “They’re people who have mental disabilities. They could be deaf. They could be blind. They could have multiple disabilities. Many have experience with work in other avenues.”

QUEST helps their clients get training and a job, but the organization also gives clients the support they need to keep their job.

“We’re trying to help as many people as we can. Sometimes it’s a collaborative effort with other agencies, like the United Way or the county.”

QUEST was formed as the Lebanon County Workshop, Inc. in 1959 by a group of local families who wanted to provide their special needs kids with greater opportunities. “The Workshop,” as it was known locally, became QUEST in 1995, as the name better reflected the changes in the vocational rehabilitation field.

“This was a safe place for people to come,” said Morris. “[Clients] were making a few bucks and it gave them something to do. It did get a bad rap early on. There was the misconception that it was like a sweat shop. It got this reputation for always being the lowest bid in town, which was untrue. But the goal is for the training to lead to a paid position. It’s become more person-centered. Employment at the beginning was food, filth and flowers.

“At the beginning, it was a viable option for families with children who had a disability,” Morris added. “We’ve really evolved over the years, and the state has evolved as well. This building was built for QUEST. It’s a one stop for everything, and it’s designed to be self-centered. And part of the philosophical shift included equal pay for equal work.”

Flash forward to the present day, and QUEST certainly has encountered its share of difficulties related to the COVID-19 crisis. QUEST closed in mid-March in accordance with Gov. Tom Wolf’s directives, then in early June began to deliberately re-open.

After shutting down in March following Gov. Tom Wolf’s stay-at-home orders, QUEST began re-opening in June. (Photo provided)

Morris said that she hopes QUEST will be back to full operation in about a month.

“In the beginning of June, we began to support individuals out of their homes,” said Morris. “So many of our clients are hungry for human interaction. So many were sequestered. But our janitorial services stayed open and our job development stayed open. We have employees relying on paychecks.”

Much of what QUEST does, Morris said, is help clients build up confidence.

“Not everyone is looking for a job. People enrolled in our Adult Day program can be delivering meals on wheels. They can be volunteering. It’s offering experience they can’t normally get,” she said. “They really make connections and come to understand the community. It’s extremely important to know they are missed when they’re not there.”

There are few more noble pursuits than aiding one’s fellow man. But perhaps most importantly, what QUEST reminds all of us is that we all need a helping hand from time-to-time.

“Our clients live independently. They live semi-independently,” said Morris. “They could live with their families. They might live in group-home settings. If there’s something going on, a lot of times we tend to be the first ones to hear about it. In many ways, we’re a sounding board. We’re kind of a total resource for people. We’re kind of known for going above and beyond.”

Morris (right) poses for a photo with QUEST Employment Coordinator Mike Barnhart. (Photo provided)

As with many organizations, QUEST’s biggest difficulties are often financial.

“There’s never enough funding to do what we want to do,” she said. “We don’t pay as much as they deserve, but generally, in service situations, people are over-worked and under-paid. This is often a place where people can start. People can find out if it’s their niche or not their niche.”

Another component of Morris’ role is to lead, to set an example for both her employees and clients. Sometimes that requires more than just smarts and a work ethic.

“We do a lot of different things. I do a lot in the community,” she said. “Because our funding comes from the state and the federal government, I’m always looking for grants, applying for grants. It’s really highly regulated, and everyone has to comply with the regulations. My role is to make sure we’re financially secure.”

Every individual QUEST works with has to have a funding source, Morris said.

“Yes, we’re a non-profit, but services have to be paid for,” she concluded. “All of our clients are adults. They’re all people and we’re just helping them achieve independence. We’re all people. We are connecting.”


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