December 6, 2010
By AMANDA BUCK - Bulletin Staff Writer
A grant-funded program managed by the MARC Workshop has created 15 full-time jobs in a year, and plans are under way to add more employees as the program expands into Patrick County.
MARC, which provides training and employment services to people with disabilities, received a three-year, $241,976 grant from The Harvest Foundation in October 2009 to fund MWS Mobile Employment Services. The program offers competitive, minimum-wage jobs to local residents with physical, cognitive or intellectual disabilities, said David Draper, MARC’s executive director.
Through the program, the workers — many of them recent graduates of special education programs in local schools — do “mobile” jobs such as lawn maintenance, commercial document destruction and moving assistance, Draper said. The employees are referred to the program by the state Department of Rehabilitative Services (DRS), he said.
Considering the high unemployment rates locally, it is difficult for anyone to find a job, Draper pointed out. Doing so can be even tougher for people with disabilities, who often need “a little extra support” when they enter the work force, he said.
The Mobile Employment Services program offers the opportunity for those who qualify to work in competitive jobs among people who do not have disabilities, Draper said. It also provides them the support they need through staff people who supervise the crews.
Donna Martin, a rehabilitative vocational counselor with the DRS office in Martinsville, said this kind of program — one that allows people with disabilities to be completely integrated into the competitive work force while also providing them with supervision and support — has been needed locally for some time.
It’s “transformative in nature,” said Nancy Cox, a program officer for The Harvest Foundation. That’s because the program has the potential to change lives.
“It focuses on greater independence and greater community integration of disabled adults,” Cox said. “... They’re working in the community in competitive, minimum-wage jobs as opposed to doing less than what they’re capable of in the sheltered workshop environment.”
They also are learning skills that could lead to permanent employment with the companies that contract for their work or could even prepare them to start their own small businesses one day, she said.
Cox said she believed from the beginning that the program could become an example to be replicated throughout the state.
In July, the DRS awarded MARC $75,000 in federal stimulus funds to replicate the program in Patrick County, Draper said. The grant was made available to communities with unemployment rates higher than 10 percent.
MARC recently hired a staff person to work in Patrick County, and this month it opened a Stuart office at 106 Buena Vista Ave. The goal is to hire 10 people with disabilities in Patrick County during an 18-month period, Draper said.
This will be the first program of its kind in Patrick County, he added.
Mica Conner, coordinator for the mobile employment program, predicted that it will find as much success in Patrick as it has in Henry County and Martinsville. The Henry-Martinsville program met all of its one-year goals in eight months, Draper said.
The program now has four staff members, 11 full-time workers and 10 part-time workers.
Conner, who also will oversee the Patrick County program, said his crew recently had about 20 contract jobs and receives calls “all the time” inquiring about leaf removal and other work.
In August, the program moved into the former Yeatts Nursery building on U.S. 58 east of Martinsville. A high-end consignment shop called the CellarChest recently opened there, and its sales will help supplement the program, Draper said.
The Yeatts building also is used to store equipment for lawn care and document destruction. The program tries to buy all of its equipment from locally owned businesses to help support the local economy, Conner said.
The equipment is funded in part by a $30,000-per-year grant from DRS, Draper said. That grant will last three years.
Conner praised the program, noting that many of the workers have given up disability checks for the chance to work and earn their own money.
“A lot of these guys are judged by their disability when they go (looking) for employment,” he said, “and here, it gives them a chance to excel.”
Tania Riddle, who manages the CellarChest, has seen the effect the program is having not only as a staff member but also as a parent. Her son Brandon Riddle, 21, is a member of the mobile work crew.
When he was 19, Brandon had surgery to remove a predominantly benign tumor from his brain. He spent three months at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center recovering from complications from the surgery, his mother said.
Brandon’s endocrine system and short-term memory were affected, Tania Riddle said, so she approached MARC to inquire about whether he might qualify for the mobile employment program. He did, and being part of it has “been great for him,” Tania Riddle said.
The work keeps him active and often takes him outdoors, which he enjoys, she said. It also might help prepare him to one day work on custom-built Harley-Davidson motorcycles, which is his dream.
The situation got even better when Draper approached Tania Riddle, who has years of retail experience, about managing the consignment shop. She jumped at the chance and is excited to re-enter the work force after 18 months spent helping her son recover.
“This has been a creative outlet for me,” she said. “... It’s like it was fate.”
Draper and Cox praised the crew and staff involved with the program, which also includes supervisor Garfid Gauldin.
“It’s been amazing to watch them grow,” Cox said. “Every time I talk to David, they have more jobs. And in particular, they have more actual contracts to do ongoing work, which is amazing.”
"I am just so proud of them,” Draper said. “They have far exceeded my expectations.”
For more information about the mobile employment program, call MARC Workshop at (276) 632-1018. For information about consigning items or other details on the CellarChest, call Riddle at (276) 632-2225.
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