Businesses: Look to the Opportunity Center to fill employee gap

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Tyler Bell, of Eastman, works through the Opportunity Center’s Community Prevocational Services program, cleaning at various business locations that welcome employment of adults with disabilities. Bell and a crew of three others from the Opportunity Center clean twice a week at Hoffman Hall, sweeping, mopping, washing tables, vacuuming, dusting and tidying bathrooms. (Photo by Correne Martin)

By Correne Martin

The Opportunity Center’s Community Prevocational Services program gives local people with disabilities the chance to gain skills and on-the-job experience, while also ensuring local businesses’ needs are met at a time where employee vacancies are high county wide.

“We have a consistent, dedicated workforce of people who are excited to come to work each day,” explained Pam Ritchie, Opportunity Center director.

“We transport our clients to and from the business. So, employers know they’re going to be on time,” added Kari Kossman, community services coordinator.

Community Prevocational Services started about three years ago at the Opportunity Center in Prairie du Chien. More recently, the administration has really focused on developing the program and getting more clients as well as county businesses to participate. The program can be paid if its at a for-profit business or volunteer if it’s for a non-profit.

Currently, about 30 individuals are taking part, working all over Crawford County, as well as in communities like Boscobel and McGregor. They typically work part-time at places such as the Bargain Boutique, city parks, NuPak, Piggly Wiggly, Culver’s, True Value, Kwik Trip, city hall, the tourist information center and Hoffman Hall.

Ritchie said the program is truly an extension of what the Opportunity Center does on its work floor, kitchen and greenhouse (and soon at Café Hope). A contractual agreement is made between the Opportunity Center and the employer. At for-profit establishments, the business pays the client at least minimum wage. However, the person remains an employee of the Opportunity Center, staying under its workman’s compensation insurance.

“In some cases, it can save the employer money, in taxes and benefits and also cutting down on overtime,” Kossman stated.

While the client is working at the business, there is a trained member of the Opportunity Center’s staff directly supervising his or her work.

The program is hoped to be a stepping stone for many of the Opportunity Center clients who seek Community Integrated Employment down the road, where the person with disabilities would officially become employed by that business as any other employee from the general public is.

“I think [these programs] bring perhaps a better understanding of just how capable people with disabilities are. It maybe can shed a little light on the word disability,” Ritchie said. “The clients go home at the end of the day, having contributed to themselves and the community and feeling that intrinsic value of working, other than just at our center.”

The spectrum of individuals with disabilities working locally via Community Prevocational Services have disabilities that range from Down Syndrome and physical difficulties to autism and learning disabilities.

“We try to match someone with the right skills to the right job and provide the right coaching for them. We know their skill levels. We’re trained to work with them and we know what can make them successful,” Kossman said, noting that if someone isn’t the best fit, changes can be made. “The more interaction community members have with people with disabilities, the more people will realize we’re all just humans. Everyone should have the opportunity to feel valuable to their community.”

As a whole, businesses are apprehensive at first, but once they take that step, it’s rewarding,” Ritchie commented. “We’re grateful to those local businesses who really support the program.”

Kossman said she’s been reaching out to Crawford County businesses as well as those bordering the county to seek interest in Community Prevocational Services. The Opportunity Center wishes to grow the program not only to benefit its clients and fill employment voids, but also knowing that its work floor may eventually become a “thing of the past.” Administration would like to see more factory and restaurant settings open to the program in the future.

“We want to get as many of our clients as we can involved,” Kossman said. “We have some great employers of various sizes in this county. We want them to at least consider giving this a try.”

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