I n unison with the melodic hum of a table saw, pyramids of sawdust collect at the feet of craftsmen in a woodshop; the earthy smell of wood chips signals the completion of another masterpiece. In an adjacent maker-space, artists collectively create one-of-kind greetings that will make recipients feel loved this Valentine’s Day while jewelers meticulously construct “Refined Designs” handmade products. This is Opportunity Works Connecticut, a 25,000 sq. foot facility where individuals thrive with exceptional work ethic, purpose and pride. It’s almost hard to fathom that all of this progressive ingenuity began with just one birdhouse.
Opportunity Works Connecticut Inc. (OWC) is a non-profit agency that supports people with intellectual, cognitive, and physical disabilities in Eastern Connecticut. The mission to enhance the lives of people through meaningful and gainful employment services began in 2009, when founders Bill Paluska and Rene Lambert pursued the idea that all people can live a fully productive life within their community. Bill was inspired by his son, Ryan, who was supported by another organization before OWC’s inception. Tasked with piecework-centric activities, Bill knew his son had much greater capabilities, so he set out to help Ryan - and others - realize their potential. At the time he had owned his own business, inviting individuals of varying abilities to assist in building decks for his customers. With positive reviews from local homeowners and a wellthought plan, Bill hoped to establish a woodworking program as part of the agency. But even with the accolades, the effort fell flat. Rene - who helped Bill construct the potential program within the previous organization - suggested they branch off, starting their own non-profit that would provide fair work with fair pay.
Within the historic mills in Willington, Connecticut, Bill and Rene opened their doors to two individuals in 2011. With the rapid addition of programs, services and staff - like Marketing Manager, Suzanne Aude - they soon needed a much larger space. In 2014 they moved to Rockville, a pivotal location enabling them to support nearly 100 individuals, employ approximately 65 support staff members and an abundance of growing programs.
Group Supported Employment (GSE) is a multifaceted production business tapping into the creative and cognitive talents of its participants. Here, a line of spectacular handcrafted products are made. Birdhouses and feeders with varying architectural details, home decor, greeting cards, wooden games, hand-sculpted decoratives, a “Refined Designs” jewelry line, cork crafts (and more) are among the line of Gifts of OWC. Items are sold at over 30 wholesalers within a 40 mile radius, dozens of weekly vending events - like hospitals, DDS offices, corporate buildings and more - as well as at their own on-site gift shop. Money earned from these wares directly support each individual, with minimum wage compensation derived from sales. OWC is among the only agencies in the state to currently pay minimum wage. Last year they budgeted nearly $200,000 in payroll, an amount that does not come from statefunded sources, but strictly fundraising and The Gifts of OWC.
Through functions of The Gifts of OWC, individuals take charge of the end-to-end management of production, inventory, customer relations, loading and unloading, display, clean-up and more. Mastering these procedures not only bolsters resumes, but also independence and confidence that helps prepare for employment opportunities at offsite locations. Mornings at OWC are started at an assignment board, where individuals direct themselves to assigned tasks and objectives. Additionally, individuals are encouraged to find their talents that otherwise may be unpursued. Once discovered, many show abilities far in excess of average. At OWC, art and design not only pays a fair wage, but encourages self-expression allowing each artist to share their own unique perspective of the world. “I love that we challenge individuals and see what people are really capable of,” says Suzanne who has helped develop much of The Gifts of OWC.
“You would be surprised what people can do, that’s what I love.”
Through GSE, small groups of individuals are deployed to area businesses and organizations throughout the community, accomplishing a variety of tasks: landscaping, janitorial work, delivery, assembly and lease vehicle cleaning. For example, the nearly 15-acre property of American Sleeve Bearing in Stafford is landscaped by OWC individuals, while others serve on a janitorial crew at West Stafford Fire Department. Individuals realize these positions after receiving a firm foundation of work-related skills earned at Gifts of OWC. Most often, individuals are ages 21-35, coming here after high school - many of which have blank-slate resumes.
“We treat this [OWC] as any workplace with the goal to prepare individuals for community-based jobs, Individualized Support Employment (ISE). That’s what we’re here for,” says Suzanne.
With support in career planning, training, job skills, assisting with employer issues, employee relations and more, OWC assists individuals to achieve gainful employment. Both Rene and Suzanne say the commitment individuals give to their jobs is unwavering - and they are always willing to learn. Each is so proud to have earned their jobs and truly excel within their respective positions. Even with this dedicated ethic, it can be admittedly difficult to find businesses open and optimistic about employing people of differing abilities.
“We find mainly mom and pop shops [are employing individuals], where you would think it would be more of the larger corporations who tote their responsibilities to charities of the world - they aren’t easily enticed to take on these type of employment situations,” says Rene. “It tends to be the small businesses who are truly doing good for our community. When you’re on a smaller level you can truly see the needs of your community - and this need is in every community.”
In an era of changing legislation and shifts within the Department of Developmental Services (DDS), community-based jobs and fair wages will be a sharpened focus in the coming years. Locally, Indian Valley Family YMCA, Star Hardware, Timothy Edwards Middle School, Geissler’s Supermarket, American Sleeve Bearing, and West Stafford Fire Department, are among the list of businesses helping to break employment barriers - each is rewarded with a positive, productive staff.
“It’s going to take success in placing people- time and time again - for other businesses to really understand that it’s possible for this population to work, I truly believe that,” says Rene.
When OWC first opened they started with the idea of “real work for real pay,” but has since grown to support a wide range of individuals. With a strong rapport in the field DDS, Rene would receive phone calls from case managers looking to place individuals that have difficulties being welcomed by other agencies. So they started a Day Service Option (DSO), an active and innovative program offering a wide variety of activities on a daily and weekly basis. Individuals experience art enrichment, community engagement, recreation, music therapy, health and wellness training, cooking classes, sensory stimulation, vocational training and are welcomed to a bowling league. Additionally, OWC offers a variety of vocational training modules to increase skill level, work productivity, and decrease work error. Individuals have the opportunity to learn warehouse training, culinary, assembly, office skills, custodial, floral design and hospitality through task boxes, hands-on and educational training, as well as volunteering in community-based activities.
Rene explains the program’s success through activities like OWC donor appreciation dinners; nearly every component is organized by individuals of the vocational program. Attendees are treated to a meal prepared by the culinary team, receive invitations created by individuals who have learned graphic design skills and table arrangements are constructed in the floral department. Each task serves as an avenue to build tangible skills and not only give purpose, but pride. She goes on to share that their “Collective Goods” business creates pop-up fundraising events while bolstering skills in merchandising, processing, management, product demos, register skills and customer service.
“The DSO program really makes my heart flutter,” says Rene. “It’s a whole different level of programming that individuals just haven’t been offered before. More than a Day Service Option, they’re learning skills, gaining experience and realizing purpose.”
For most, a first job is an exciting and important part of independence. With this equal enthusiasm, Sarah (from Stafford) and Tim (from Somers), truly understand the source of this pride. Each has refined their resumes, skills, and self-sufficiency. Tim and Sarah have worked nearly every facet of the OWC program, and through this success, they have created both positive outcomes for themselves and the businesses who employ them.
“I’m currently pursuing a position in our Collective Goods business, but also work at the West Stafford Fire Department and on the landscaping crew at American Sleeve Bearing [ASB],” says Sarah with a wide, authentic smile. “Me and other individuals will weed whack, mow, rake, and plant in the springtime at ASB - I love working outside. I really like to talk about what we do and the things we make here. I’m not shy at all anymore.”
“I used to be, but I’ve overcome that,” Tim adds. “I’m more calm and confident in myself.”
Tim, who works on some of the same crews with Sarah has since found employment with the Somers Fire Department, an undeniable point of pride. While attending a pancake dinner with his father, he approached the Chief about how to become involved with the department. He filled out an application, had an interview and was accepted into the EMT Training Program. “I wrote on my application that I had a desire to help those in need,” says Tim with a smile.
“They were really happy to see that - and they are always willing to help me do that. If I have questions they will always get answered.”
Sarah and Tim’s successes are just two of the many here at OWC, an organization filled with amazing hearts and progressive opportunities. Opportunity Works Connecticut believes everyone has the right to work and relies on support to continue serving people with amazing abilities. To learn about becoming an employer, donor, volunteer, sponsor or how to help, visit owct.org. For beautifully crafted goods and products, visit The Gifts of OWC at 45 West Main Street in Rockville, CT