The University of Alabama at Birmingham has received a New Freedom Initiative (NFI) Award from U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao for the university’s outstanding support of employment for people with disabilities.

The Secretary’s NFI Award recognizes exemplary and innovative efforts to train, recruit and hire people with disabilities and to incorporate into workplaces the principles of U.S. President George W. Bush’s New Freedom Initiative. Introduced in 2001, the NFI is a comprehensive set of proposals designed to give people with disabilities the opportunity to fully participate in all aspects of community life, including employment. This year, UAB was one of four non-profit organizations to receive the national award. Four businesses and one individual also were honored.

UAB, the state of Alabama’s largest employer with some 19,000 employees, was recognized in particular for the institution’s Retaining a Valued Employee (RAVE) program, a partnership effort between the university and the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services. Earlier this year, the university was recognized for the same program by the Alabama Governor’s Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities, which awarded UAB one of its first Disability Employment Awards.

“The RAVE Program was formed in 2000 to coordinate campuswide services and develop innovative training, recruitment and retention initiatives for individuals with disabilities,” said UAB Chief Human Resources Officer Cheryl Locke.

“The core strength of RAVE lies with the unique, mutually beneficial partnerships it facilitates in order to create a comprehensive service model for helping people with disabilities enter, remain and advance in the workforce.

“UAB is committed to creating a positive, supportive and diverse work environment in which all of our employees can excel,” said Locke. “All of our training and recruitment efforts, including those of the RAVE Program, emphasize these values, as well as consumer choice and preparedness for competitive employment.”

Locke, executive director of HRM Consultants Connie Pruett and RAVE Coordinator Richard Helling, who directs the program, received the award on behalf of the university in a special fifth anniversary NFI award luncheon ceremony in Washington, D.C., Thursday, Oct. 26. Jim Harris III, assistant commissioner for the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services, also was recognized during the luncheon.

“The RAVE Program at UAB exemplifies the ideals of the New Freedom Initiative Award by striving to embody the words of one of Alabama’s most celebrated individuals, Helen Keller,” said Helling. “She said, ‘Together we can do much,’ and it is thanks to the efforts of so many people both with the university and the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services that RAVE has been a success.

“Our employees who are disabled are contributors first and people with disabilities second,” Helling said. “It is also thanks to them that we are receiving this important recognition, for which we are very appreciative.”

Other NFI award winners in the non-profit category were disability works of Chicago, Ill.; the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Rochester, N.Y.; and PRIDE Industries, Roseville, Calif. Winners in the business category were Highmark Inc., Pittsburgh, Pa.; Aetna Inc., Hartford, Conn.; Raytheon Missile Systems, Tucson, Ariz,; and CVS/pharmacy, Woonsocket, R.I. The individual winner was Ilene Morris-Sambur, Marshall, Va. In addition, Chao also awarded the SPIRIT (Strength, Perseverance, Integrity, Role-model, Independence, Trailblazer) Award to Dave Dravecky, former Major League Baseball pitcher for the San Francisco Giants.

Following his battle with cancer, Dravecky and his wife Jan established the Outreach of Hope ministry, which offers referral services and resources for those who are facing significant medical or physical challenges, especially people with cancer or amputation, and their families. 

More information about the award and the Department of Labor can be found online at