Their shout of victory: 'I can do it!' Mentally disabled aided by jobs program ANNE ARUNDEL


Mary Ellen Bender can't tell you how many years she's been at her job in a workshop for the mentally disabled, or the amount of her last paycheck.

But the 30-year-old shouts when she is asked whether she enjoys sliding refrigerator warranties through a machine that seals them with plastic.

"I can do it by myself!" she exults. "It feels good!"

She is one of 118 clients at Opportunity Builders Inc., a nonprofit vocational training program for mentally disabled people.

For 31 years, the organization has provided training, on-site work lTC and job placement in the community for mentally disabled adults and those with cerebral palsy and epilepsy.

Now, Opportunity Builders employs 82 people at its headquarters, a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in Hanover where workers assemble, sort and package products.

Another 36 people have been placed in jobs with Anne Arundel companies such as Pizza Hut, Wal-Mart and Marriott.

The work offers mentally disabled people a way to develop self-worth, says Tamara Turner, director of development.

"Our theme is 'Helping people with developmental disabilities help themselves.' They're contributing to our community," Ms. Turner says. "They get paid; they feel needed, and they are. We need them to get the work done."

For example, during the last week the company received a contract from a printing company to roll 50,000 All-Star Orioles posters.

All over the huge warehouse, workers wound posters around cardboard tubes, then slid them into orange plastic covers. Some worked with relative ease; some struggled hard to keep the posters from slipping away. Others packaged shampoo bottles into boxes.

"It's kind of a learning process," says Ms. Turner. "When they come here, they're not sure what they're capable of. We try out a lot of jobs until we find what they say they enjoy and do well."

Bruce Watts, 44, has worked at Opportunity Builders (formerly called The Sheltered Workshop of Anne Arundel County) for 12 years. He still remembers the excitement of his first day and says he loves his job -- running machines, sorting, folding, organizing.

"I like being busy," he says. "I work hard. I have more jobs to do."

Mr. Watts' goal is to get a similar job in the community, and when he looks at his resume, he says, he feels proud.

Opportunity Builders is financed through the state's Developmental Disabilities Administration, The United Way and private donations.

The organization solicits contracts with local companies and pays workers based on how much they accomplish. Each job has a different pay rate.

"Whether they make $1 or $200 a paycheck, they know they're getting paid for their work, and that enables them to feel good about themselves," Ms. Turner says.

Businesses such as Westinghouse are regular customers, and more and more companies have given contract work to the Opportunity Builders warehouse.

But finding those who will take on a mentally disabled worker in their own store or business is somewhat harder, Ms. Turner says.

"People are still nervous about what to expect, so there's some reticence," she says. "But some companies out there are just wonderful, and one improvement is that companies seem more willing to expand the type of job they'll consider a mentally impaired worker for. It's not so stereotypical."

For example, 20 years ago just about the only job a mentally handicapped person could get was doing janitorial work, she says. Now, stores are hiring Opportunity clients to work in jobs that require more interaction with customers.

In addition to providing work for mentally disabled people, Opportunity Builders also trains physically and emotionally impaired workers who need intensive assistance.

Such work isn't aimed at making a profit but lets severely disabled people "complete something that's part of a job," Ms. Turner says.

"That's important for them."

One young woman in a wheel-chair who couldn't speak clearly and could barely move her arms managed to push the wrapped posters down a cardboard shoot set up across her chair and into a box. She pushed with her fist.

"She gets very excited when she finishes," Ms. Turner says.

Opportunity Builders also offers adult education courses, with a private instructor who comes to the warehouse four days a week to teach reading, writing and arithmetic.

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