Making golden opportunities

The Baltimore Sun

Vicki Callahan arrived at Opportunity Builders Inc. at perhaps its darkest hour.

She joined the private nonprofit organization, which helps developmentally disabled adults become more independent and learn job skills, back in 1986 as a program manager, only weeks before its landlord padlocked the doors because of unpaid bills.

The building was closed only a couple of hours after parents and friends of OBI clients raised money to pay down some of the debts.

"It was scary," Callahan said. "If we didn't have family members to contribute, we might not have reopened."

The organization rebounded, and in the past 20 years has outgrown its rented quarters in Hanover and built up a $1.4 million cash reserve for its first permanent home.

Today, the organization will break ground on a $9.4 million building on 14.5 acres it bought in Millersville in September. It currently serves 300 clients and is poised to handle an influx of 100 more during the next five years, said Callahan, now executive director of Opportunity Builders.

"It's still something that's been a dream for long-time family members," she said.

Parents, educators and disability advocates in Severna Park founded OBI in 1962 as Sheltered Workshop of Anne Arundel County. After several moves, the organization moved to its current location in the BWI Commerce Park in 1991.

Because Opportunity Builders could not support itself, made apparent in the 1986 crisis, it applied for state licensing, a prerequisite for state funding. It receives $4 million of its $4.6 million annual budget from the state Department of Health & Mental Hygiene.

It took Opportunity Builders until 2004 to build up enough of a cash reserve to move forward with the construction project, Callahan said. The organization has received $3.1 million in state and county funding and took out a loan to pay for the rest. So far, Opportunity Builders has raised $477,000 in private donations in a $2 million fundraising campaign, which it will announce today.

The new building at 8855 Veterans Highway will have 41,000 square feet, compared to the 30,000 that the organization rents at 7509 Connelley Drive. The building will have wider hallways with self-opening doors to make it more wheelchair accessible, as well as more space for the warehouse and distribution center, classrooms and conference rooms. It should be finished by January 2009, Callahan said.

Family members do not have to pay for services, but they often volunteer at the center. Opportunity Builders serves more than developmentally disabled adults ages 21 to 65 -- nearly half of whom have jobs in the community. Up to 170 clients work in the warehouse operation, which bids on contracts for large and small businesses.

Last year, Opportunity Builders had $185,000 in contracts with 28 companies, performing services such as packaging, labeling, sorting and collating. The money is used to pay wages and benefits to clients.

The supported employment program helps clients identify what type of work they prefer, answer job interview questions and use public transportation. Those enrolled in this program take jobs at companies such as Old Navy, Safeway and Baltimore Washington Medical Center. Opportunity Builders then drops in to make sure clients are succeeding.

The adult development center helps those with severe disabilities learn how to live more independently and tackle small work projects, such as stuffing envelopes. Opportunity Builders also provides classes in reading, math and computers.

Opportunity Builders helped Lindsey Holmes start her own messaging business, Lindsey's Message Service. Holmes, 23, who is quadriplegic and has some developmental issues, places calls and sends out e-mails to remind people about appointments.

She started offering the service on a volunteer basis while she was in school. Job coaches at Opportunity Builders showed her that she could charge for the service and helped her apply for a $15,000 grant to buy a computer, which she received a couple of weeks ago.

Her service has been effective, said Cindy Hart, her job coach. A church hired Holmes to remind congregants to return surveys. As a result, the church had an 85 percent response rate, Hart said.

Laura Cefaratti has been practicing there daily to prepare to sing a song she wrote for today's groundbreaking, The 21-year-old, of Annapolis, is blind and easily frustrated, but she also has perfect pitch and is a nimble keyboard player.

The lyrics to Cefaratti's song, "Unity," bring tears to the eyes of staff members at Opportunity Builders, said Leslie Prewitt, marketing and public relations manager at Opportunity Builders.

"Let's live in unity, standing as one," Cefaratti sang during a practice. "Let's live in harmony under the morning sun."

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