Vocational rehabilitation is often an underappreciated part of the workers’ comp process, but great voc rehab professionals act as an intermediary between the injured worker, their employer and the carrier. Proper rehabilitation ensures that the life and cost of a claim stay under control and that the injured worker is able to either return to work effectively or find other fulfilling employment. Dene’ Mathies is one vocational rehabilitation professional that gets it right. Louisiana Comp Blog spoke to Dene’, who retired in November 2013, about her life, her career and what she’s up to post-retirement.
An Educational Journey
Dene’ Mathies grew up in scenic Natchitoches, Louisiana and left to attend LSU at 17 years old. Initially, her dream was to teach, and she received her Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education in 1983. However, after completing her course of student teaching, she realized that conventional instruction was not her calling and instead pursued a specialization in deaf education at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. While at UT-Knoxville, she met a woman representing vocational rehabilitation as a profession and was immediately inspired to investigate the field.
By the time Mathies left Knoxville to head back home to Louisiana, she was dedicated to vocational rehabilitation as a career path. By 1985, she had signed on with Gisclair and Associates, then a small company, as a voc rehab consultant. She worked with Gisclair for most of her 28 year career, eventually retiring in November 2013. Yvonne Rosen, an associate and friend of Mathies for many years said, “She was a real joy to work with, a truly genuine person.”
Gisclair and Associates, an Exploratory Career
As Gisclair and the voc rehab community at large grew in Louisiana, Mathies was faced with new challenges. She explains, “The voc rehab field became very competitive, there were so many companies offering similar services.” In an effort to combat the homogenization of the field and to distinguish themselves, founder Bob Gisclair assigned Mathies to a new, vital role within the company – marketing. Once Mathies got started, she realized that she had found her niche within a niche. The increasing need to differentiate themselves and gain new customers to grow Gisclair and Associates was, as Mathies laughingly dubbed it, “a constant quest.” Part of this quest was also the overall expansion of the company, and Mathies was repeatedly tapped to participate in the opening of new locations of Gisclair and Associates across the state. Regarding the workers’ compensation industry as a whole during her tenure at Gisclair, Mathies remembers the turbulent nature of workers’ comp law in particular: “things are always changing according to the court system…and of course there’s constant reform.”
Despite the shifting forces of the industry environment as she remembers it, Mathies’ tone gets soft as she discusses why she stayed with the same company for almost her entire career, an unusual move in today’s ever-churning labor market. She explains that the evolving marketing aspects of her work were especially fulfilling, and provided constant new challenges and opportunities to contribute to both a field and a company that she loved and by which she felt appreciated. Bob Gisclair, though a dedicated businessman was, Dene’ emphatically states, “the sweetest, best boss.”
Just prior to her retirement from Gisclair, Mathies became the “sweetest, best boss” herself. Mathies trained Whitney Jenkins, the current marketing representative for Gisclair, to take her place. Jenkins explains: “I have never instantly adored anyone as much as I did Dene’. Her humor and positive attitude has the ability to command a room full of people, no wonder everyone loved her. I was sad that our work relationship was so short but I felt as if I knew her for years. When I meet with clients they still ask about Dene’ and they always remind me I have big shoes to fill, which I couldn’t agree with more. She is truly a joy to be around.”
A Few Words of Wisdom
Workers’ comp can be volatile and there are numerous moving parts to every claim, however, those who make a career out of the workers’ comp industry learn how to balance their energies. When it comes to staying positive in the difficult and competitive arena of workers’ comp, especially in her role as a marketing professional, Mathies emphasizes the team environment. She explains, “The people you work with really make the difference [in positivity]…we all became friends. Staying positive is easy when you’re working with great people…We were all competitors but we were also friends, that’s so important.”
Mathies, whose boundless energy and engaging personality are much-noted among those who worked with her during her Gisclair days, also participated in additional industry activities outside of work. She sat on the Board of the Louisiana Association of Self-Insured Employers and also on the Board of Examiners for the state, which handles the licensing of vocational rehabilitation professionals.
LASIE was an experience of growth for both Dene and the organization, since she found herself there in the early days of the Association’s existence, (it was founded in 1991) at a time when they were constantly attempting to build membership and pursue opportunities to demonstrate why joining and participating in a self-insured community was vital and important for themselves and the state. Rosen sat on the board of LASIE at the same time as Mathies and indicated that the experience was a positive one for various reasons both professional and personal. Rosen explained, “Dene’ was everybody’s friend. You just knew you could call her anytime. She is so full of life.”
While growing membership was a challenge, it seems that Mathies was able to successfully steer some of her marketing duties with Gisclair toward LASIE, since the organization is still going strong and is set to hold its 23rd annual conference in November of this year. In fact, Mathies herself was a member of the conference committee in previous years and described the experience as “a lot of fun…picking the theme, trying to incorporate the theme into the topics and speakers. It was a great experience.”
Wayne Fontana, an attorney with the New Orleans law firm of Roedel, Parsons, Koch, Blache, Balhoff & McCollister, remembers Mathies as a key part of his best LASIE conference memories. Fontana notes, “I personally admire her competitiveness, which I experienced every year at the LASIE conference when we’d go head-to-head in the booth competition. One of my favorite conference memories is when Dene’ was wrongly identified as not only a participant, but the ultimate winner of a cage dancing contest! The good sport that she is, she laughed as much as or more than the rest of us.”
However, Mathies has also experienced more than her share of sadness and yet, true to form, was able to transform her grief into something productive. The urge to aid others came from a need within herself after personal tragedy. She explains: “My best friend committed suicide…I knew how much help other people in a similar situation can provide because I was in a support group myself.” That unexpected healing resource guided her toward an organization in Baton Rouge called LOSS: Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors. LOSS focused on those who are left behind after a suicide takes place. Like Mathies, “suicide survivors” often struggle with questions about their loved one’s death that can never be answered. Mathies served on the LOSS team for several years, but after the organization transitioned to a model that included all mortal catastrophes in the Baton Rouge area, Mathies felt that her service would have to take a different direction: “I wanted to be able to empathize authentically.” To that end, for the last seven years she has worked for Sister Dulce’s Catholic ministry in Baton Rouge twice a week. Once again, her dedication has a personal connection: “Sister Dulce’s ministry really helped a friend of mine who suffered from cancer,” she explains. It is easy to see how Mathies’ career and volunteer work, as well as the course of her education, play out to reveal an overarching principle of personal connection and caring.
These Days: Buffett and Beach Wear
When she isn’t volunteering, Mathies spends her time managing Sorority Inspired Sandals, a high quality footwear enterprise founded by Mathies and her daughter. SIS officially opened online on July 20th, 2014. The website sells officially licensed sandals from eleven different Greek organizations, including Mathies’ and her daughter’s own sorority, Pi Beta Phi.
Fitting her sunny disposition and new business venture, Mathies is also a diehard Jimmy Buffett fan. In fact, she expresses her status as a Parrothead as enthusiastically as an Irishman on St. Patrick’s Day, immediately getting excited as she relays her experiences at his legendary stage performances. “There are all kinds of people in the crowd,” she explains, “old women in grass skirts, young people, everybody.” When asked to clarify the best part of a Buffett concert, she is almost lost for words – “going to a Buffett concert,” she explains, “is the highlight of anyone’s life.” Prompted to explain Buffett’s endurance over the years as a crowd favorite and laid-back lifestyle icon, Mathies cites his relatability: “There’s a song for every time in your life, great musicians can do that.” And although Mathies has mostly left the workers’ comp part of her life behind, there’s “so much to be done…why don’t we wander and follow la vie dansante.” (Jimmy Buffett, “Last Mango in Paris”)