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Emilea Hillman, Tom Harkin

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, left, invited Emilea Hillman, of Independence, Iowa, front, and her sister, Ashlea Lantz, center, and mother, Tami Fenner, to the signing of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act at the White House on Tuesday. Hillman and her family met with President Barack Obama before the signing.

WASHINGTON | To show her appreciation for his signing legislation calling for increased collaboration between vocational rehabilitation programs and high schools, Emilea Hillman invited President Obama to coffee.

At her coffeehouse.

Hillman, a developmentally disabled woman from Independence, Iowa, made the offer to Obama during an impromptu meeting with the president Tuesday before he signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act in a White House ceremony.

“It was a surprise,” her mother, Tami Fenner, of Independence, said. In fact, Ashlea Lantz, Hillman’s sister, received the invitation just five days ago.

The bill, which was reauthorized with the leadership of Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, or HELP, Committee, calls for updating and improving the nation’s workforce development and vocational rehabilitation systems. It was approved 95-3 by the Senate and 415-6 by the House.

Harkin arranged the meeting between Hillman and the president and for the family to attend the bill signing.

Hillman has known Harkin for a number of years and two years ago testified at a HELP Committee field hearing in Cedar Rapids.

Born without a corpus collosum -- the nerve tissue connecting the right and left sides of the brain -- Hillman faced a life in institutions, said her mother.

After graduating from high school in 2007, Hillman went to work at a sheltered workshop: $2.50 an hour hanging clothes in a backroom. With little opportunity to build new skills, she quit after what she calls “a bad day” in early 2009.

With support from her family and Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services’ Self-Employment Program, Hillman opened Em’s Coffee Company in Independence nearly five years ago. She employs six people, two of whom have disabilities.

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“Em is a great example of what a girl with passion can accomplish,” Lantz said.

She credits Harkin with pushing for the changes to give her sister and other developmentally disabled people direct access to employment opportunities outside of workshops or segregated facilities.

“Hopefully, this will give others a chance to do something on their own,” Fenner said.

Provisions of the reauthorization require state vocational rehabilitation programs to work closely with high schools to ensure employers have the information needed to recruit, hire and retain people with disabilities. It also requires state vocational rehabilitation programs to dedicate 15 percent of their funds to transitioning young people into competitive, integrated employment.

As a result, Harkin said, the bill will help prepare a new generation of young people with disabilities to prepare for, obtain, and succeed in competitive, integrated employment.

Obama didn’t set a date to come to Em’s Coffee, but that may be just as well. She’s been commissioned to provide 26 gallons of coffee and hundreds of cinnamon rolls for RAGBRAI riders who will roll into town Friday.

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