Enterprise as Therapy

They make protective sleeves for plants using brown paper and glue. They cut, sharpen and paint wooden stakes that hold real estate yard signs. They grow lettuce and make lattices for historic homes. They make cypress swings and Adirondack chairs.

Mobile ARC’s little corner of the economy gives intellectually and developmentally disabled adults work they can do well. The nonprofit agency also finds jobs outside their workshops for clients who are capable of handling it. These partnerships benefit both people who, with some assistance, can work, and businesses that need a particular service or product.

“I think that when we developed these businesses we found a niche that was not being served, ” says Jeff Zoghby, executive director of Mobile ARC. “We’re not a huge volume. In other words, I couldn’t go into Lowe’s and sell my lattice all over the country. I couldn’t produce that volume.

“We’re not a threat because of our size, I think, and because we have niche product. We’re filling a void.”

Every year, intellectually disabled young people finish the public school system, stepping into adulthood and the rest of their lives. Some will do well in a group home with job training and employment settings in which they are comfortable. Federal and state funding is limited, though.

- Sponsor -

Mobile ARC, a 60-year-old organization that was originally begun by parents with disabled children, serves about 400 people. Of that number, 100 are in the workshops in downtown Mobile and in Irvington, while another 40 to 50 work outside jobs. But Zoghby says the Department of Mental Health has more than 3, 500 people on its waiting list for services statewide, and they end up sitting at home.

Mobile ARC’s clients generally have IQs of 70 or under. They can perform repetitive tasks that require some skill and attention to safety, such as cutting, sawing and sharpening. Most of the work is done by contract, and also includes sorting hangers, nuts and bolts, and Mardi Gras items.

“They are simple enough repetitive-type tasks that they are able to do, ” says Division Director Ginger Druhan. “We have different skill levels.”

Clients are also taught work skills such as following instructions, making decisions, dealing with conflicts and building stamina to get through a workday, she says.

A group gathered to speak with Business Alabama described their jobs with pride, from cutting lattices to cutting grass. They also volunteer at a recycling center, a restaurant ministry that accepts donations or service in return for meals and a local food bank. They talked about getting occasional tips and about loading bottled water on a truck headed for North Carolina after Hurricane Matthew.

The volunteer work raises their visibility in the community and lets them make contacts, MARC officials say. It’s a form of networking.

ABOVE Crystal Hayes (left) and Alex Jones build latticework at Mobile ARC’s workshop in Irvington.

MARC’s products are also visible, though most people don’t know their origin. The stakes for real estate signs and surveys are sold not just in south Alabama but shipped to Louisiana, Texas and Florida, Druhan says. The architectural lattices are the only ones allowed in Mobile’s historic districts. 

“The realty stakes and the latticework, those are products that there’s really no competition for, ” she says.

The stakes are so popular that when a key piece of equipment in making them broke down last year, the Baldwin County Association of Realtors replaced it at a cost of $10, 000.

“If you’re going to do stakes like that, to my knowledge they are the only ones within several hundred miles, ” says Troy Wilson, president of Bellator Real Estate and Development and a board member of the Baldwin Realtors association. “There’s only a handful that even make these things.”

Wilson says Bellator was considering making the donation when a fellow board member suggested taking the idea to the association. “I think it’s a great way to give back, and it’s certainly been mutually beneficial for the local community, MARC and the real estate community, ” he says.

Beyond the workshops, the goal, for those who are capable of it, is what’s called supported employment. Coaches seek out businesses that are willing to take on a disabled employee, and they spend time on the job with the client until he or she feels comfortable enough to work independently.

MARC can also intervene if there are problems and will seek another placement if one job isn’t working out. A few clients have had to deal with company-wide layoffs as well. 

Employers include restaurants, a hotel, Yellow Cab, Budweiser Busch Distributing and a drug store.

Mobile’s Stein Mart has two MARC workers, one who does janitorial work in the mornings and one who vacuums, dusts and does other housekeeping chores at night. Store Manager Laurie McBride says she had worked with similar organizations in the past.

“I know that individuals from the Mobile ARC and Goodwill Easter Seals, they struggle to find employment within the community. For me, not only am I benefitting from getting certain things done here at the store, I’m also employing someone who probably wouldn’t be employed somewhere else.”

Danny, she says, takes great pride in making sure bathrooms are clean and floors are shiny. “In turn, my staff has also changed as well. At first they really questioned me on why I was using my payroll on someone with a disability. I said, ‘This gentleman is going to do something that you probably don’t want to do.’”

Now, she says, everyone looks forward to seeing the MARC workers.

Mobile ARC faces problems like any other business. Zoghby says the price of cypress has tripled, so the furniture making may have to switch to pine or some other wood. Automation also has an impact on the need for sheltered workshops like MARC’s.

Over the next couple of years, Zoghby says, MARC will be looking at its business model, including what products are made and what the agency wants to continue to do.

As for outside employment, the goal is always to seek more business partners. “What we try to do is make it successful, ” he says. “Hopefully, they’ll let their peers know and maybe bring in other companies.”

Jane Nicholes and Elizabeth Gelineau are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Nicholes is based in Daphne and Gelineau in Mobile.


The latest Alabama business news delivered to your inbox