Book of Dreams

Recycling program provides jobs, self-esteem for workers with disabilities

Daryl Washington picks up recycling at an engineering firm in Rancho Cordova last month. Washington suffers from hearing loss and is one of the disabled persons employed with Southside Art Center’s recycling program. The art center is asking Book of Dreams readers for money to pay for steel-toed boots, uniform shirts, gloves, rain gear and a back brace for its recycling team employees.
Daryl Washington picks up recycling at an engineering firm in Rancho Cordova last month. Washington suffers from hearing loss and is one of the disabled persons employed with Southside Art Center’s recycling program. The art center is asking Book of Dreams readers for money to pay for steel-toed boots, uniform shirts, gloves, rain gear and a back brace for its recycling team employees. lsterling@sacbee.com

At age 33, Daryl Washington aspires to work as a plumbing engineer. But for Washington, being hired to any job has always seemed an insurmountable feat.

Washington has an auditory disability that has resulted in hearing loss and difficulties communicating – and its accompanying stigma. An inability to gain employment forces many adults with chronic developmental disabilities to rely on government assistance to meet day-to-day needs.

About a year ago, Washington found hope through a job-training and employment program for adults with developmental disabilities through Southside Art Center in Sacramento. The center trains and employs 15 people who collect, sort and redeem recycling materials from more than 100 private and public agencies throughout the city each week.

For Washington, a day on the job is high-energy and fast-paced. After unloading the previous day’s recycling materials to be sorted at Southside Art Center, Washington and a small crew from the “truck team” head out to pickup sites. He then speeds through the building, collecting and dumping recyclables into a large bin in a flurry of mixed-colored paper, Post-it notes and old business documents.

“It’s a rewarding job,” Washington said. “I’ve made friends with my co-workers and have learned to communicate better here.”

In 1992, Southside Art Center instituted the recycling program in response to clients who wanted – but struggled to find – paid employment. The program’s objective is to level the playing field by teaching professional and interpersonal skills, communication and work ethic, said Katherine Wallen, director of programs.

“The truth is that those with disabilities have to prove themselves more than the average person,” Wallen said. “To get a job, they have to be better than the nondisabled person standing next to them. They’re up against an automatic expectation that they’re not going to be as good at a job.”

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Southside Art Center works alongside each employee to identify a suitable position within recycling operations, based on physical and cognitive ability. Center staff then provide proper training, tailored support and professional mentorship.

“We’ve found that people with developmental disabilities tend to be very consistent,” Wallen said. “Job retention is usually very high if you can train someone for a job that they can master and have confidence in. While someone who is not disabled may get bored and leave a job, someone with a disability will find meaning in it and want to stay.”

For Washington, working at the recycling center for a year has boosted his self-esteem, professional skills and overall communicative abilities.

“When Daryl first came to us, he was very reserved,” Wallen said. “He used to shut down when other staff members asked him questions, but now he can answer those questions with confidence and ease.”

Based on position, employees work 20 to 30 hours per week. With a substantial and steady income, as well as paid time off, clients are empowered to gradually reduce their reliance on Social Security benefits and become increasingly self-sufficient, Wallen said.

Southside Art Center faces various challenges in operating a for-profit business model under the umbrella of a nonprofit organization.

“This is both a business and a job training program at once,” Wallen said. “It’s a constant balancing act of meeting the needs of the program’s participants, while making sure our clients out in the community are getting the services that they need.”

The organization, which relies heavily on fundraising and community support, often also struggles to find funding to pay employees and maintain program operations.

Southside Art Center is asking Book of Dreams readers to help the recycling center’s operations by helping purchase essential equipment and attire for its employees. Items, including steel-toed boots, back braces and rain gear, would serve to increase on-the-job safety and instill professionalism.

“With the minimum wage going up, our ability to effectively fund this program has really been affected,” Wallen said. “Any donation helps.”

Brenna Lyles: 916-321-1083, @brennmlyles

The request

Needed: Southside Art Center seeks money to purchase equipment and attire for employees in its recycling center program

Cost: $1,100

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