- Associated Press - Saturday, March 11, 2017

COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) - Gary Baldwin sat on a low stool, carefully applying labels to glass-encased candles, the final step in the production process at the Ability Works facility located on Datco Industrial Road in east Columbus.

An outside observer might immediately conclude that Baldwin is stuck in a low-paying, tedious, numbingly boring job.

That is not the way Baldwin views it, however.

“This right here,” he said serenely, “is one of the best things that has ever happened to me.”

For most of his 34 years, Baldwin has been in custody of one sort or another.

“I was in (Department of Human Services) custody as far back as I can remember,” he said. “I grew up in Palmer Home and pretty much went straight from there to Department of Corrections - Parchman, Greene County, over in Alabama. I was in and out, mainly for drugs.”

Things began to change last year. That was the year he finally confronted his drug addiction. It was also the year he became a dad.

“He’s 5 1/2 months old,” Baldwin said of his son. “That changed everything. All the sudden, the things I saw before, I saw in a totally different way. It’s hard to explain.”

Faced with the all-too-predictable path of drug addiction, Baldwin took the first cautious step in another direction. With the help “of people I didn’t even know,” Baldwin was admitted to the Pines at Cady Hill, a residential drug treatment center last summer. In a few months, he hopes to move to Last House on the Block, a transitional living facility for men who are recovering addicts.

Late last year, Pines referred him to Ability Works.

For Baldwin, it is perhaps the biggest step of all.

“I’d had some jobs before, but never for very long,” he said. “They were either temporary jobs or the drugs got in the way. This is different. I can tell.”

Where the workers are clients

At Ability Works, Baldwin is both a worker and a client, one of seven people currently employed at the facility. The Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services (MDRS) operates 16 such facilities throughout the state.

While the facilities range from factory work to janitorial services, the mission is the same - to provide job training for people with disabilities with the goal of helping them join or return to the workforce.

“Our clients have a variety of disabilities, whether it is physical, cognitive, emotional or drug addiction,” said Chris Howard, executive director of MDRS. “We also serve transitional age training for students that are leaving high school but don’t plan to go to college. We also have internships, so if a client wants to pursue a specific job, we can place them in a private company that provides that kind of work.”

The program provides counseling, mentoring and evaluations for a host of job-related topics - everything from learning how to fill out job applications and employment paperwork to adapting to the workplace environment, interacting with employees and supervisors. It also helps clients develop good work habits - attitude, punctuality, job proficiency.

But it is in the factory setting that those lessons go from theory to practice.

The client/workers perform real jobs for real customers. Deadlines and expectations are the same as they are in the conventional working world.

“Really, what we do here is determine who is job-ready, who has the potential to hold a job,” said Steve Newell, who has been production manager at Ability Works since it opened in Columbus in 1997. “We’re there to encourage them and train them and evaluate their progress, but at the end of the day, it’s a job. They have to meet that standard.”

Howard said the program provides training to 16,000 people annually. About 5,000 of those move into private sector jobs within 90 days, with many more eventually finding outside jobs.

“They make great employees,” Howard said. “When they get a job, they’re happy to have it. They’re not looking for another job as soon as they walk in. I really think it’s been a great success in getting an underserved population into the workforce.”

Private sector support

For all their efforts, facilities such as Ability Works could not succeed without the support of the private sector. Real work requires real customers.

Over the years, Ability Works has provided production support for all kinds of private sector clients - from product assembly to packaging.

Currently, Ability Works has just one contract, although it has space for more.

“On average, we’ll have four contracts a year,” said Ability Works facility manager Michelle Bell. “How many clients we can provide jobs for depends on the contract. Like any business, we negotiate contracts and business owners want to make sure working with us makes sense for them. That means we keep those costs low enough for it to work.”

While the current contract, with Grassroots Natural Candle Co., requires just seven workers, Bell said some contracts require as many as 40.

The more contracts, the more people the program can help, so the emphasis on reaching out to the private sectors is an important part of the equation.

“That’s my whole job,” said Hardy Mitchell, who is responsible for business development outreach in the area. “The big thing for me is identifying companies who could benefit from what we do. I feel like if I can get my foot in the door, that’s the biggest step. We offer high-quality, competitive services, and companies can be eligible for tax breaks, too. So I really have something very attractive to sell.”

Ability ‘works’ for candle-maker

If Mitchell ever needed to provide a testimonial to help make his pitch, he could like find none better than that of Chris Lick.

Lick started Grassroots Natural Candle Co. five years ago on the second floor of a building in downtown Columbus. After a couple of years, he faced the kind of a problem business owners are happy to accept: Demand for his candles outpaced the company’s ability to supply them.

“We are in 1,000 stores in 38 states,” Lick said. “We really had outgrown our place downtown.”

Lick sought other options that would allow him to meet the demands of his growing business and came across a post on Facebook about Ability Works. He was intrigued.

“I have a 4-year-old who has special needs, so that part of its resonated with me because they work with an underserved part of the community,” he said.

But his interest was not confined to sentiment. The more he thought about it, the more sense it began to make.

After talking with Ability Works officials, he committed to something of a trial run - contracting with Ability Works to put the labels on the candles last fall.

Satisfied with their performance, Lick made the big move in January, shifting the entire candle-making production to the facility.

“To say it has exceeded all expectations is an understatement,” Lick said. “It’s been incredible, far beyond our wildest imagination. The order we are sending out Friday to Home Good is 6,000 units. We did that in a week. That’s something we could never, every have done before. We could probably have done 3,000 units in a month in our old place. Now, if we get an order for 10,000 candles, it’s like, ‘no problem.’ I’d say conservatively, we could make 50,000 candles a month here.”

‘I feel like I can make it’

In his two decades working closely with disabled clients, Newell said one lesson has emerged beyond all others.

“You know, when I first started here, I realized that everybody that stepped through that door was different in some way, with different challenges and abilities and things they needed to work on,” he said. “At first, you want to make judgments about them based on those things. But I learned pretty quick not to judge a book by its cover. Some of the people I thought were going to be real problems and would never be able to succeed turned out to be my best workers.”

Newell paused and looked over to where Baldwin was applying labels to candles.

“That guy right there, he’s as good an example as any,” Newell said. “I thought he might be trouble, might have an attitude problem. I should have known. He’s one of the best we’ve ever had.”

Unaware of the compliment he has just been paid, Baldwin continued his work.

“I never really was taught any real skills, coming up,” he said. “When you spend as much time in custody as I have, you learn skills, but they’re only the kind of skills that get you back in custody. Here, it’s different. I’m learning things all the time, all kinds of things.

“Before I came here, I didn’t know how to fill out a W-2 form,” he added. “One job I had, I think I checked 11 deductions. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. But here, they show you. I think my taxes will be in a lot better shape this time.”

But there is something else, something of far greater value, Baldwin says he has learned even through the simple task of sticking labels on candles.

“I never really thought I could do anything, really,” he said. “I didn’t have much hope. Now, it’s different. I’ve just gotten so much positive reinforcement, and I never had much of that before, either. For the first time, really, I feel like I can make it. I can’t even tell you how good that feels.”

___

Information from: The Commercial Dispatch, https://www.cdispatch.com

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