Disabled man's business started with state grant


Greg Prater, the first in Carroll County to receive a state grant to allow a disabled person to establish a business, offers his own reason for wanting to be self-employed.

He smiles, rubs his hands together and says, "to make money."

In that respect, the newly self-employed Westminster resident is no different from any other entrepreneur, said Marcia Rohrer, a state rehabilitation specialist supervisor. She helped Prater obtain a $15,000 grant that got a vending machine business off the ground.

"Making money is everybody else's reason for opening a new business," she said.

Prater, 35, suffered a traumatic brain injury 20 years ago in an auto accident. It left him disabled, coping with severe speech and mobility problems. But his work ethic remains strong.

He has been employed for the past four years at The Arc of Carroll County, a private, nonprofit corporation that offers work and support services to about 150 people with disabilities. For the past two months, he has been running a vending machine operation and handing out his business cards.

"Vending machines," he said. "That's me."

The grant from the state's Division of Rehabilitative Services allowed Prater to purchase and stock four vending machines and a money changer in the cafeteria at The Arc.

In his first month of business, he earned about $1,000 -- about three times what he made during a typical month doing piecework at the Arc facility in Westminster. He is putting the profits back into his business and expects to expand the service, installing two more vending machines at a small office building near The Arc by Dec. 1.

Don Rowe, director at The Arc, called Prater an ideal candidate for the program.

"The more I heard about the program, the more I thought some of our clients could do it," Rowe said. "Greg is a solid worker, not really fast but very industrious. There was not enough work for him here. He needed something a bit challenging, like this self-employment opportunity."

His strong work ethic is evident to everyone who knows him.

"Greg wants to work all day," said Cristin Cellitto, The Arc's vocational services manager. "He works through the breaks and only stops for lunch."

Prater and Rowe attended a class in entrepreneurship, offered by the state, and came up with the idea for a vending machine enterprise.

"The idea of the preparation is to give a sense of what it's like in business, the ups and downs of being self-employed," Rohrer said. "We can provide money to help a viable business get off the ground. If somebody has a good idea and a chance of succeeding, we will help them get started. The whole purpose is to help people become tax-paying citizens."

RISE Partners, a company contracted by the state, has helped Prater and six other developmentally disabled people in Maryland start businesses, said Morris Tranen, RISE director. The company also provides continued support to the new entrepreneurs, who include an Eastern Shore resident manufacturing crab mallets and a Harford County woman baking and selling treats for horses.

In Anne Arundel County, another client has started a portable paper-shredding enterprise. Another has a hot dog vending business in Howard County.

Prater's business plan requires him to be an active participant, able to handle the core functions of the job, said Tranen.

"Greg is a great candidate for this business," said Tranen. "He likes to sell stuff, and he has more than 150 customers using his vending machines."

Prater attributes his success to the products he chooses. The snacks, sweets and sodas he stocks have proven so popular with the staff and his co-workers that he refills the machines at least twice a week.

"They tell me what they like and I get it," he said, adding that he wants to keep everybody satisfied and, of course, buying. He also makes sure he has an ample supply of his favorites, Animal Crackers and Three Musketeers candy bars.

"I use the machines, too," he said.

Prater is so bent on customer satisfaction that "we have had arguments in the middle of the store about something that might be hard to sell or won't fit into the machine," Rowe said.

Prater has settled into a weekly routine. He restocks the machines on Mondays and Wednesdays.

"The Coke is almost empty," he said as he loaded fresh cans of soda one at a time. "People get thirsty working here."

"I really like having a soda machine here," said Joe Alt, a client at The Arc, who passed through the cafeteria and bought a chilled soda as Prater was reloading.

He loads from a wheeled cart filled with cases of products that will go into the machine. Leaning on the machine with one hand, he unlocks it with the other.

He fills the slots following a diagram that shows him what goes into each of the 54 spaces. He works slowly and steadily, making sure each bag fits in its assigned space. Then he empties the money and relocks.

As for the money, the bills go into a hip pack belted at his waist and most of the coins are recirculated into the money changer. Thursdays are for banking and shopping for supplies with Rowe.

"Greg is a hard worker who deals with real limitations," said Rowe. "I would say he is on his way to self-sufficiency." Prater has managed already to set a little money aside for a holiday trip he plans to take.

"I want to fly to visit my mother and I want to take her presents," he said.

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