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AT YOUR SERVICE: Tim Connell, right, says his son Brendan will soon be among clients receiving employment services through Imagine Technical Institute, a nonprofit he founded to aid individuals with disabilities.
Tawnie Wilson | SBJ
AT YOUR SERVICE: Tim Connell, right, says his son Brendan will soon be among clients receiving employment services through Imagine Technical Institute, a nonprofit he founded to aid individuals with disabilities.

Former insurance exec launches nonprofit

Imagine Technical Institute aims to boost job opportunities for people with disabilities

Posted online

Tim Connell is on a new mission after retiring from a career as an insurance executive. He’s now focused on improving the lives of individuals with disabilities through employment services via a nonprofit in the Branson area.

Imagine Technical Institute is a vocational training and employment services provider for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in southwest Missouri.

While the nonprofit began operating late last year out of office space at 101 State Drive, Ste. 240, in Hollister, an open house planned Jan. 18 will serve as a public introduction, said Nick Clinton-Elliott, who serves as ITI’s regional director and one of its two employees.

“We can serve anyone who has a disability and wants to work, as long as they are legally able to work,” Clinton-Elliott said, adding the nonprofit’s primary focus is Christian, Greene and Taney counties.

Clinton-Elliott said ITI is a satellite location of St. Joseph-based Boone Center Inc., another nonprofit that serves adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He said ITI’s services are modeled after those offered by BCI, which began in 1959 and provides organizational, competitive and vocational training programs. Competitive employment assists individuals with disabilities who want to work in their community while earning the same opportunities, benefits and pay as nondisabled coworkers. Each client is provided customized services to support their employment goals.

“We have a three-year memorandum of understanding between ITI and Boone Center. For the next three years, we will annually review, assess and decide if the partnership is working and how we want to continue that,” Clinton-Elliott said. “The idea is probably after three years we will kind of be our own entity. We’re definitely leaving that open for now.”

Local officials say BCI serves more than 100 competitive employment clients a year and has graduated over 80 from its skills center, which opened in 2019. The center has a 94% overall job placement rate, an 86% job retention rate after six months and a current average starting wage of $17.50 per hour. 

“We were able to partner with the Boone Center and basically replicate their model locally for the vocational training program,” Clinton-Elliott said.

Setting goals
Connell said around $3.5 million is being invested by him and other silent partners in startup costs for ITI, which included roughly $1 million for the purchase of a two-story, 12,000-square-foot office building from Steve and Katrina Creedon, he said. Pierson Construction Inc. is handling renovation work for the building, which also houses tenants such as Houseman Land Survey LLC and Step Above Realty LLC.

Connell worked 35 years for Connell Insurance Inc., becoming its president before retiring after the company sold in late 2022 to Fort Worth, Texas-based Higginbotham, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting. He began conversations with BCI around two years ago as part of a search to find the right client service model for starting a nonprofit.

“I’m basically the founder of the school, and Boone Center is the operations piece,” he said.

Being involved with an organization that aids people with disabilities is nothing new for Connell, whose son Brendan, 31, was diagnosed with autism as a child. Brendan currently works at Tantone Industries Inc., a sheltered workshop for adults with disabilities. Connell, who is chair of the Tantone Industries Board of Directors, also is a board member of Developmental Connections, a social services organization that serves Taney County.

“I’ve always been passionate about helping people, and I’ve always wanted to help in the community,” he said. “The big game-changer for me was that I had a car accident in 2012.”

After the crash, Connell said he reprioritized his life and set two goals.

“One was to be out of the insurance business in 10 years. The second was to look toward what other programs we could develop on our own for people with special needs,” he said.

Connell said he wants ITI to complement and not compete with any other agencies or employers that aid adults with disabilities.

“We are not out to limit or cause any harm to workshops or any services already provided,” he said. “We are only looking to enhance or grow opportunities for the disabled and employers in our region.”

According to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for persons with a disability of working age, generally considered ages 16-64, was 7.8% in November 2023, down from 8.2% from the previous year. However, it’s more than twice as high as the jobless rate for those without a disability, which was 3.3% in November.

In focus
Hospitality and manufacturing are initial industries of focus for ITI, Clinton-Elliott said, adding the organization is a member of the Missouri Association of Manufacturers.

The nonprofit’s services include job placement assistance, on-the-job coaching and a vocational area summer work program, which involves a six-week paid work experience that provides students with a firsthand look at life on the job while they gain work skills and soft skills from an on-site job coach.

“That gives them job experience and kind of gives them some ideas of what they want to do in the future,” Clinton-Elliott said. “Then it will also help prepare them for once they’ve graduated. They will have more of a transition plan.”

For adults, he said vocational instruction at ITI consists of an eight-week course where participants meet daily for three hours on the job site to get training from the organization’s instructor. The course is provided at no cost to participating employers.

The nonprofit also has received some early funding assistance for its programs, which are accredited through BCI by the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities International. CC Links and Developmental Connections have approved ITI for funding in Christian and Taney counties, respectively.

Developmental Connections awarded $96,400, with an additional $23,920 from CC Links, according to officials. Additionally, ITI recently received a $25,000 grant from Community Foundation of the Ozarks.

The organization will have a board of directors, Connell said, adding several from the county boards providing funds are likely candidates. The board should be in place within 60 days, he said.

“If they are going to put money in, we think they are deserved the courtesy of giving input,” he said.

Clinton-Elliott, who most recently worked for Nova Center of the Ozarks, said he fell in love with helping individuals with disabilities while he worked for the Springfield-based nonprofit.

“I love being on the ground level of things and getting to build programs up. That’s something I’m very passionate about,” he said. “This was too good of an opportunity to turn down.”

While he’s had conversations with several undisclosed companies in recent weeks, Clinton-Elliott said ITI is close but not yet ready to announce any business connections.

“I’d say within the next 30 days we’ll make an announcement,” Connell said.

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