- Associated Press - Monday, May 8, 2017

GROTON, Conn. (AP) - Every table filled with more customers waiting out the door is a sure indication of success for most bakeries and restaurants, but not for Seabird Enterprises.

The Groton-based nonprofit incorporated in 1983 employs individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities, and it has shuttered the doors of a couple of its eateries when they became too popular.

“They were just so successful that we had to close. They were too busy. They were so fast-paced and our people couldn’t handle that,” said Janet Ledwidge, a founding member of Seabird and the parent of a 55-year-old participant. “If it’s too fast-paced, we are defeating our goal; we’re defeating our mission.”

Ledwidge’s daughter, Kathy, works at Puffins restaurant in Groton, one of the Seabird enterprises. Her mother, who has continuously served on the Seabird board, including a stint as president, was involved in the late 1970s when some Groton parents and community members decided that they wanted more for intellectually and physically disabled students after they left Robert E. Fitch Senior High School.

“These special ed kids really needed someplace to go and something to do,” said Ledwidge. “We wanted to give them opportunities. We wanted them to meet with the public. We wanted them to meet with society every day and to give them confidence.”

They collaborated with the late Harold “Doug” Neumann Jr., who helped them to establish and incorporate Seabird Enterprises. Today, Neumann’s daughter, Lori Neumann, is executive director of the nonprofit, which has grown far beyond Groton, serving about 250 individuals in eastern Connecticut from the shoreline north almost to the Massachusetts boarder. Seabird operates facilities in Groton, Uncasville, Plainfield and Colchester, offering vocational training, job coaching, and work opportunities at its properties and in the community.

Clients - or “individuals” - range in age from 15 to almost 80. They arrive by vans at the various sites at 8 a.m. Mondays through Fridays. Some individuals are trained and work, and others participate in so-called “day service options,” something along the idea of adult day care.

Seabird runs its own bakeries and restaurants, greenhouses, woodworking shops, and a farm in Uncasville with four horses, a goat, two peacocks, a miniature Zebu bull, and an over-sized cat named Nobel.

At Riverview Farm in Uncasville there’s also a therapeutic riding program, and participants who help care for the livestock get to ride on Zinnia, an old logging horse.

Jobs at the various sites include mucking the animal stalls, grooming the horses, watering and tending to plants, and typical restaurant and bakery duties, from food preparation to waiting on and busing tables, washing dishes, and making cookies, pies and muffins.

At Puffins, where breakfast and lunch are served, the clients make seven varieties of bread and are known for their eggs Benedict and pastrami hash. At Cottage Gardens in Colchester, they grew enough tomatoes last summer to supply most of what was needed in their restaurant/bakery, and had ample apples and pears from the orchard out back for their pies and other pastries.

In the woodworking shops, they assemble and sand birdhouses and bat houses, and other handmade wooden items, some of which are custom orders or sold at area farmers markets.

Supervisors operate the machinery, and there are redundant safety features on devices that could lead to injuries. If an individual touches a machine, it’s always hand over hand with a supervisor.

At Puffins, the restaurant on the Thames River in the city of Groton, supervisor Chantalle Picard works the fryolator and griddle, but she’s surrounded by individuals performing other tasks, including expediting orders from the kitchen out to customers waiting at tables.

Norwich resident Jessica Longo, 41, explained she’s a short order cook and charged with making the salads. One of her favorites to concoct includes strawberries, lettuce, red onion, blue cheese, chicken and candied walnuts.

“I love it here,” she said. “I love being near the water. And I love the people I work with.” Looking at Picard, Longo added, “She’s excellent. She’s the best boss I ever had.”

In Colchester, 57-year-old Steven Dobrowski is equally enthusiastic about his time with Seabird. He participates in the Cottage Garden program in Colchester and explained how, with the help of supervisors in the woodworking shop, he made a CD holder.

“I came up with the idea myself. I told the guys what I wanted to do, and they helped me,” he said. Dobrowski lives with roommates in a group home in Norwich, but said he was at the former Seaside Regional Center in Waterford from 1967 to 1987. Seabird, he said, hired him 24 years ago.

“I love it. I just like being around people. They make me feel like family here,” he said, adding that one of his favorite activities is the weekly yoga session.

“It helps to keep me in shape,” said Dobrowski, who uses a wheelchair.

Staff at all the facilities knows the abilities and needs of the individuals they work with, and everyone is on a first-name basis. While some Seabird individuals work in the nonprofit’s businesses, others go out into the community, like the crew from Riverview Farm in Uncasville, which goes to Buffalo Wild Wings in Waterford every weekday morning to clean and prep the restaurant before it opens.

There’s another crew from Riverview that reports to the Naval Submarine Base in Groton as needed to help re-provision submarines, loading food and other supplies up the gangway with sailors.

“They really like it,” said Riverview site supervisor Jason Rivers. Additional crews do residential yard work or report to area farms, where they help with chores and landscaping.

Scott Hayes, who runs the woodworking shop at Riverview, spoke about one individual who was withdrawn but often drew animals on paper. Hayes got the man to draw on wood, and now Hayes cuts out “Marshall’s Art,” wooden animals that are sanded and with the help of the artist get a custom-drilled eye.

“We try to utilize their strengths,” said Hayes, who acknowledged he hasn’t been employed by Seabird for all that long.

“I came into this job late in life,” he said. “But it’s the best job I’ve ever had. It’s awesome. I get to teach some guys the way my father taught me.” ‘

Chris Loso, the site manager at Cottage Garden, said customers who stop in at the restaurant for breakfast or lunch are generally pleased.

“People will wander in, and they don’t know (that it’s a vocational training facility for the disabled) and they are pleasantly surprised,” he said. “We get very positive feedback.”

Picard, the site manager at Puffins, said her restaurant attracts tourists who often return the following year because they enjoyed the food and the ability to support Seabird’s mission and its employees.

When the nonprofit started, it was funded through grants, including money from the state. Now, individuals receive “portable funds” from the state to support the programs they choose to participate in, making the vocational training and day services opportunities more competitive.

Neumann, Seabird’s executive director, said her nonprofit is unique in that it creates its own businesses for individuals to be trained and work in. And, Seabird’s longevity means some participants and some of the nonprofit’s staff have been working together for decades.

“It’s like a big family of people who feel safe and secure,” she said. “And (working here) gives them a chance to identify and feel part of something. It gives them a reason to get up in the morning.

“Because Seabird has been around so long, we have gotten to see people throughout their whole life. We have people who came here as students and are now approaching mid or old age. … And there is nothing better than seeing someone who has blossomed because of what our programs have given them,” she said.

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Online:

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For more information: The Day, www.theday.com

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