County's disabled hired to clean, maintain PALS buildings

Participants earn money, gain confidence and new skills

cconley@islandpacket.comMay 12, 2013 

Most weekdays, the workers load into vans and fan out across Beaufort County.

They mop floors, scrub bathrooms and remove garbage from community buildings and rec centers. During breaks, they chat with coworkers and perhaps have a snack.

In other words, it's a pretty typical job.

That's the idea.

"That's what we want to do -- give people the same opportunities you and I have," said Mitzi Wagner, executive director of Beaufort County's Disabilities and Special Needs department.

Currently, there are 128 mentally or physically disabled adults enrolled in the department's day program. About half of them work, Wagner said.

The cleaning contract with PALS, which was formalized earlier this year, employs about 14 people -- called consumers -- at different times. Other adults in the work program fold clothes at Goodwill and help in foodservices at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.

The employees gain skills that can improve self-sufficiency and confidence. They also get a regular paycheck.

"I don't care how much you make, whether you make a big paycheck or a small paycheck ... you get some kind of a rush when you get that paycheck," Wagner said. "People with disabilities are like you and me, they just don't have all the same capabilities that we have, and they get that rush, and that is important to them."

The offsite work is just one part of the department's day program, which is run from a new facility located on Clear Water Way in Beaufort. Staff offers life skill training, teaches classes and workshops and works with clients to advance individual goals.

The $6 million, 25,000-square-foot facility has gardens, a pottery studio, classrooms and other amenities. It also has basketball hoops, three-wheeled bikes and workout equipment donated by Curves.

Not every adult in the program is capable of working off site, either because of physical limitations or behavioral challenges. However, the department hires those consumers to wash DSN vehicles or shred office documents.

Consumers also earn money by selling pottery made in the program and vegetables grown on site. A few times a year, the consumers vote on what to do with profits from those endeavors. Usually, they choose to split the money.

"The consumers are doing what they want and what we want for them," said Billy Love, head of the department's day programs. "I feel with more consumers working, more of the public will give a second thought to stereotypes."

County officials say the PALS cleaning contract has been a success. In fact, it could be expanded to other facilities not covered under the existing agreement.

Wagner says she's also proposed allowing DSN consumers to clean the new St. Helena Island library.

"We are very hopeful that we are able to do that."

Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/IPBG_Casey.

Related content:

Simple amenities make big difference in new Beaufort County special needs building, Feb. 3, 2012

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