- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2009

OCCOQUAN, Va. | In a riverside town full of boutiques, Spinaweb is unique.

Its hand-woven placemats, baptismal towels and women's apparel are rare enough in an age when so many things are stamped “Made in China.”

But what makes the shop special is that - unknown to casual browsers - its finely crafted products are the work of intellectually disabled weavers, whose efforts have been subsidized by Prince William County for the past 26 years.

Suddenly, recession-induced cuts to the county budget have made the future a lot less certain for the shop's eight weavers, who have had to confront the possibility of joblessness or janitorial and cleaning jobs.

A total shutdown has been averted with the emergence of alternative financing that will keep Spinaweb workers employed four days a week. And there are indications the county will reconsider its decision to cut off the funding.

But for weavers such as Michelle Paules, the uncertainly has added one more affliction to an already difficult life.

One day last week, she sat at her loom smiling constantly behind her small wire-rimmed glasses.

Miss Paules, 37, who has worked at Spinaweb for 15 years, seemed to move in slow motion. Her short legs strained to work the pedal as she crafted a white baptismal towel stitch by stitch.

“I'm doing good,” she said faintly to her longtime boss, Spinaweb superviser Erna Gilker. She proudly patted the ream of white fabric with the stubby fingers of her good hand, the left. Her right hand is too weak for work such as cleaning, which Arc of Greater Prince William also offers.

“She hates snow days. She would come to work sick if she could,” said Mrs. Gilker. “She loves to work.”

Idling these weavers for a day threatens their well-being because they likely will be inactive and without the social interaction they get from working at Spinaweb and going to lunch or to the post office in Occoquan.

“They are really woven into the fabric of the community,” said Karen Smith, executive director of Arc of Greater Prince William. “Shopkeepers there embrace them and help them develop appropriate social skills.

“They have a tough time sometimes filling their day with appropriate activities,” she said.

Miss Paules' mother, Linda, attending a county budget hearing last week with dozens of Arc supporters, said not working at Spinaweb “would break her heart. It would mean sitting and watching soap operas all day.”

Mrs. Paules asked her daughter what she would do if she couldn't work at the shop.

“I would start crying,” Miss Paules answered.

The budget cuts - at a time when governments at all levels are experiencing a dramatic decline in tax revenues - will also place a burden on long-suffering family members.

“It impacts the entire family, when a … person with a disability is sitting at home without a job, this is [someone] who really cannot be left unsupervised. A parent may have to quit their job or get a part-time job,” said Lynn Ruiz, community relations director for the Arc of Northern Virginia.

Prince William, which faces a $107 million budget shortfall, proposes to cut $566,000 from community services. As a result, the funding for the Arc of Greater Prince William would be cut by $72,000, according to Ms. Smith. Budget officials' intent was that it all would come from the $175,000 contract for Spinaweb, which would have forced the shop to close.

Spinaweb was an easy target. The shop does only about $12,000 a year in sales, Mrs. Gilker said.

Ms. Smith concedes that Spinaweb is expensive compared with other programs.

“Spinaweb services a very small enclave of people,” she said. “It only services eight people and it's expensive to operate. It's a premier program, it's very unusual.”

At the county budget hearing, Mrs. Paules presented Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, at-large Republican, with a hand-woven scarf, and made a proposition to the eight board members.

“If you close Spinaweb, there are going to be eight adults with nowhere to go. There are eight of you. I propose we make a deal,” she said, suggesting the supervisors care for them.

The advocacy at the budget hearings may have had an impact.

Mr. Stewart visited the shop recently with his wife, Maria, and their children. He was impressed.

“I believe we are going to restore the cuts to Spinaweb, because it's unique and it's proven to be an exceptionally effective program for working with the intellectually disabled,” Mr. Stewart said.

The weavers “have some innate ability to do this work with their hands,” he said. “It's beautifully done and it's quite an incredible thing to see. It's also bringing back an old skill that has really kind of disappeared.”

Some of the weavers have worked at Spinaweb from the beginning, virtually their entire adult lives. Patty Hale, 48, and Becky Smith, 52, have worked there for 26 years under Mrs. Gilker.

Ruth Hellwig, a frequent shopper and former Arc board member, has noticed a marked improvement in quality since the program's early years.

“My house is full of it, and they do beautiful weaving. It really would be quite a shame because the people who work there are highly functioning young ladies,” said Mrs. Hellwig, who is 83.

The shop gets orders from as far away from Texas and even Russia, as people who visit Occoquan go back home and spread the word.

Mrs. Gilker trained as a nurse in her native Austria. She has dedicated her life to Spinaweb and the intellectually disabled, and chuckles when asked why.

“Everybody asks me that. I care for these people because people do not care for these people.”

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