JACKSON — People with disabilities are more like everyone else than they are different, said Curt Alford, executive director of Willowood Developmental Center, which provides job force training for people with developmental disabilities. But a job may be even more important to adults with developmental disabilities because being employed isn’t something they take for granted.
“Many times our people have never had any type of job before,” said Alford. “There is self-esteem we all get from being able to work and do good. All the things we get out of work are the same for them. Being able to hold a job enhances their self-esteem and morale. It improves their confidence.”
There are also benefits to the family in having someplace the disabled person can go to be productive for part or all of the day. It allows other members of the family to be able to work.
The Work Activity Center is the vocational program part of the center at 1635 Boling that also has a preschool serving 115 children, about half with development disabilities and half typical children one to five years old, three group homes and a day program for adults with severe disabilities.
There are about 100 people who come to the Work Activity Center. Supported employment components of the program over the past seven or eight years have placed about 75 people in jobs in the community.
Work activity centers have been established over the years as both training and long-term employment for adults with developmental disabilities. The developmental disabilities are those that have occurred before the age of 18 or 21 such as mental retardation, autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, etc. Willowood serves people primarily with mental retardation and physical disabilities associated with that.
“We typically subcontract work from various businesses and industries in the area which provides both training for people on work skills and work behavior, and is long-term employment for a good number of our people,” Alford said. “Our job placement part of that is called supported employment. Typically what we do is have staff members who go out and develop jobs with different businesses around town. Many times this job developertrainer will go in and work the job themselves a few days or a week, then bring the person in and train them on a job. Then they provide follow-up services on as needed basis.”
Because most of the participants are not going to work a typical 40-hour week and do all components of the job without support, the job is tailored to the individual. Most jobs end up being 20 hours per week.
Surveys show that employees trained and placed through Willowood actually have lower rates of absenteeism than other employees.
Things can happen so that an employee placed by Willowood doesn’t work out.
“A lot of our people have good work ethics and really want to work,” Alford said. “They can lose their job just like anyone else. But most employers are willing to try another person from our center. That says a lot for the program.”
Until recently Willowood focused primarily on jobs in the fast food and janitorial areas. Now they are moving more into more targeted job placement that are higher status jobs that require a higher skill level. That involves job developers getting to know the person, families and the natural support system, and targeting an appropriate job in the local community.
“Then we do the placement and training, hopefully to build some life-long support and meaningful work relationships for people that typically aren’t developed in fast food jobs,” Alford said. “Fast food uses a lot of students and has a high turnover rate. In that kind of setting the people we serve don’t typically develop long-term meaningful relationship that a lot of the others of us establish through our work settings.”
Darlene Therrell, operations manager of the Willowood Work Activity Center, said the effort towards higher skill jobs is both outside Willowood and within the center. For example, currently individuals are learning to pack boxes using a machine rather than by hand. People are being trained in the operation of the automatic packers.
“Going from just hand work to do machine operations is one objective we have at the work activity center that will help people look into the community and find opportunities for them,” Therrell said.
Willowood workforce training also includes classes on interpersonal skills: how to get along with people, how to appropriately address people, and how to have friends.
Therrell said being able to work — and get a paycheck — is just as important to the developmentally disabled as anyone.
“The benefits are it makes the individual feel more accepted in society,” she said. “They have a good feeling of accomplishment when they are able to do certain activities, when they are able to go out into the community and do things just like everyone else. They love their paychecks. They are proud of their paychecks. You don’t have to tell them it is payday. They know.”
Another benefit is that the participants become not just consumers, but taxpayers who are contributing to society.
Work at the Willowood Center includes contracts for mail service, build wiring harnesses, packaging and assembly jobs.
Willowood Development Center is a private non-profit organization which is certified and accredited by the State Department of Mental Health, and receives a combination of funding from government grants, private contributions and revenue from work contracts. For more information on Willowood, call (601) 366-0123.
The following businesses and governmental agencies have contracts that help provide employment through Willowood Developmental Center:
• William Carey College
• Reckitt Benckiser
• Great Southern
• Mississippi Coffee Company
• Institutions of Higher Learning
• Mississippi Plastic Bags
• Mississippi Blood Services
• Mississippi Bankers Association
• National Awards
• CSC Recycling
• Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Mississippi
• Mississippi Development Authority
• Girl Scouts
• Mississippi Children’s Home Society
• Salvation Army
• The Nature Conservancy
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.