Micah Sukenik is one of the forerunners. So is Patrick Marino. Both have jobs. Theirs are not jobs like those at the Trudeau Commonwealth Avenue Patterson Center, where people with developmental disabilities do batch work, performing the same task again and again.
These are workplace jobs, where employees are expected to show up on time, have certain skills and achieve levels of performance. This is the world of work beyond the highly structured sheltered workshop, where scores of people, some close to retirement age, have come for years. For many at the workshop, that is their only exposure to work. It’s a place they know. They know their co-workers. They know their supervisors. It’s a place where they are comfortable. And, as important, their families know they are in a secure, caring environment.
Now, some of these same people won’t be in a place where they are being constantly watched. They will be in a place where their skills are likely to be tried, even challenged.
Tuesday evening, Micah, Patrick and several of their peers were introduced to the business community. They weren’t singled out, but rather mingled, and even worked, as Patrick did, at the Central Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce’s Business After Hours event.
Trudeau hosted the event under a tent at Employment Concepts, a separate building that is part of the Trudeau campus on Post Road in Apponaug. Employment Concepts, with a staff of 14, opened at the beginning of the year. It is remarkably different than the functional space of other Trudeau offices with linoleum tile floors, metal chairs and fold-up tables. Rather, this could be the office of a realtor or an attorney, with a waiting area of comfortable seating, nice carpeting, coffee tables and distinctive artwork. It’s a world away from the Trudeau workshop.
“You come here to look for jobs,” Joni Martell, director of employment, said to a couple of chamber members who have asked to see the office.
She explains it wouldn’t have been practical to operate from offices at the Commonwealth building, as clients being evaluated for their job skills, trained and coached would have been in the same place and would have reverted to doing what they were accustomed to doing. Employment Concepts is currently working with 40 clients. Some of them have come from the Patterson Center, others are recent high school graduates.
Trudeau’s shift toward integrating people with disabilities into community jobs follows a critical Department of Justice report. The department found that the Trudeau shelter workshop was one of seven in the state for persons with developmental disabilities (IDD) that failed to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. The report found that the state had not taken significant efforts to get disabled out of the workshops and into the workplace.
The agency, which serves 1,300 clients, has a $25 million budget and employs 950, has signed a consent decree with the Justice Department that it will close the workshop in 10 years.
“The state goal,” said Martell, “is to eliminate central-based services. The idea is to make it [the job experience] as normal as possible.”
“We want people to be integrated [into the community],” said Gayle Reed, program coordinator.
It is working. Since opening, Employment Concepts has placed six clients in jobs, which is more than Reed has seen get jobs outside Trudeau in her 20 years with the agency.
“They are being moved into the community through Employment Concepts,” Trudeau President Donald Armstrong said yesterday. Since the start of the year, the population at the workshop has been reduced from more than 100 to about 50, he said.
Placing Trudeau clients on the outside doesn’t come without a lot of work and a network of support. Routines are established and clients are accompanied to work. Their performance is evaluated. It requires more one-on-one work, which requires more staff and is more costly. State funding hasn’t kept pace and, in fact, says Martell, the level of funding, if viewed from a per client basis, has declined.
“You can moan about the budget cuts,” she said, “or you can work with what you’ve got.”
That’s what’s happening. The system is working.
Patrick was on the job Tuesday night, dressed in his white shirt with a food thermometer poking out of its sleeve pocket. He was serving hotdogs and hamburgers fresh from the grill. Patrick didn’t say much when asked about his regular job.
“Prepare food,” he answered.
After going through training – and culinary jobs is a big sector for placing clients – Patrick ended up with a job with Amgen, where he works in the cafeteria.
The team behind Patrick and other clients includes four job coaches, four job developers, two evaluators, transitional supervisor, employment developer and two in culinary training.
Micah came to the event prepared. He carried a folder with resumes, and was anxious to meet and talk with people. He wanted to spread his news. He just landed a job with the New England Institute of Technology, where he will be working at their automotive center. He will be changing oil, mounting tires and doing other tasks not expected of students.
He hasn’t started yet.
“I’m so pumped,” he said. “I can’t wait.”