It’s a Friday morning and Sara is working to sort donated clothing. Some things go in bins, others on hangers. Anything with a stain goes back in the bag.
Next to her, clad in special heat-resistant gloves, David works quickly and efficiently to steam wrinkles from the clothing on hangers.
Both say they’re happy to be working at Freedom Treasures Resale Store in Highland, where they get ample opportunities for interaction with the community while learning a variety of job skills. Both say they’re happy to be productive and happy to bring home a paycheck.
The store is just one venture operated by Freedom Work Opportunities, a non-profit organization aimed at empowering adults with disabilities.
The organization provides its consumers — as it refers to the individuals it serves — with work skills, job placement, social skills,and various activities, along with the opportunity to feel safe and be valued while — in many cases —earning a wage.
“I think Freedom Work benefits him well,” said South Lyon resident Carrie Hawkins, caretaker for her brother David, who lives with Down Syndrome and has been involved with FWO for more than 20 years. “It gives him a chance to be out in the community. He’s learned how to act around other people and how to treat people.”
A similar experience has been the case for many of FWO’s consumers.
Tim Ouellette of Milford Township is caretaker for his cousin, Jeffery G., and also a member of FWO’s board of directors.
“The staff is great,” he said. “They take good care of any problems that arise, there’s always good communication. He comes home joyful, full of smiles. He likes going to work. He really enjoys it.”
For consumers, the program is multidimensional.
“The best thing they get is a sense of worth,” said FWO Executive Director Robin Trimper. “Our consumers get to get up and go to work every day just like Mom and Dad, just like their brothers and sisters. I hear that so much from parents, our consumers go home all excited and tell their families what they did at work that day.”
Freedom Work was founded in 1983 by Trimper’s parents, Harry and Beverly Weeks, when they experienced, first hand, the difficulties of transitioning a challenged child — their son Chip — from school to work.
“My dad started out with a lawn crew of six guys,” Trimper said, noting both her parents have now passed, but Chip still works for FWO. “His focus was quality, quality, quality. Everything had to be just perfect before we drove away, and pretty soon all the neighbors wanted services. That was our start.”
The goal, she said, was not to start a lawn care business, but rather, to provide adults with disabilities a means for vocational training, assessments, supportive employment, and job placements.
Today, the organization serves about 180 consumers — from about age 20 through senior citizens — with 76 staff, 35 vehicles and 5 locations.
The majority of consumers have mild to moderate developmental disability, while others live with Cerebral Palsy, autism, Down Syndrome, hearing or vision loss and more severe developmental disabilities.
Consumers, who come from Milford, Highland, South Lyon, White Lake, Novi, Waterford, Pontiac, Grand Blanc and surrounding areas, are placed in the program by referral from local funding agencies such as the Macomb Oakland Regional Center, Genesee County Community Mental Health, and Michigan Rehabilitation Services.
While the organization still provides lawn and other outdoor services, such as leaf raking and snow shoveling, FWO has branched out in a number of other directions, as well.
Consumers who are in community supportive roles make deliveries, pick up and deliver mail, and pick up recyclable materials from businesses around the area.
“Our local businesses have been very supportive,” said shop manager Leslie Ruggles, noting the recyclables are sold to recycling facilities by the pound, which provides the organization with a small amount of supportive revenue. “We support them, and they support us. It’s important to build those relationships in the community."
“The stores are doing absolutely fantastic,” said Trimper, noting the initiative started with a small shop in downtown Milford about seven years ago as a way to help generate jobs for FWO consumers. “We have been truly blessed with the amount and quality of stuff we get. It’s just been awesome.”FWO is also ready to open its fifth Freedom Treasures Resale Store. Currently, the organization operates stores — which sell clothing, house wares and other goods — in Highland, Hartland, Waterford and Grand Blanc.
All items sold at the store come through donations Consumers who work in the stores unload donations, clean, sort, price and shelve merchandise, as well as clean the store and perform other necessary tasks, while other crews work to pick-up larger items at the donor’s home.
And nothing goes to waste. T-shirts, for example, that can’t be sold because of a stain or dated logo, are cut up and packaged by FWO consumers, and sold as rags in places like Tuffy and Five Star Ace Hardware.
“We keep trying to develop things to be more self-supportive,” said Trimper. “We’re going to be faced with more budget cuts, and we keep saying ‘what can we do?’ We’re trying to use all our resources.”
Other consumers work in a variety of locations — such as Kroger and Arby’s — around the community.
In addition to placing consumers in community jobs, FWO also operates what it calls the Middle Road facility in Highland, where consumers who are not ready — or not able — to work in the community can also feel productive and earn a wage.
Consumers who work in the Middle Road facility perform a variety of tasks, depending on the need of employers who commission work.
Last week, several individuals were doing simple assembly of air valve parts; some were moving along at a brisk pace, while others needed a little more guidance.
Seniors and Volunteers
But not everyone who participates in FWO is paid. The organization also provides opportunities for seniors with disabilities to join in with local senior centers — including Highland Township’s Adult Activity Center — for events and activities.“We’ve been very well accepted at the local senior centers,” Trimper said. “They’ve taken our seniors under their wing, and whatever they’re doing, we’re doing it right along with them.”
The seniors at FWO also go on trips and participate in fundraising activities. They recently made lavender heat packs to raise money for activities.
FWO also facilitates a volunteer crew of consumers who deliver Meals on Wheels, help stock the Genesee County food bank, help at Community Sharing and perform other various acts around the community.
But, directors say, the social aspect of the program is just as important as developing job skills. Every year, consumers have an opportunity to participate in a dance, picnic and other social events.
Last week, for example, consumers gathering at the Middle Road facility to start the day were talking about the previous days’ holiday party, where they enjoyed the company of friends, ate, danced, laughed and just had a good time.
Program directors also recently started a monthly art program.
“It’s fun and they absolutely love it,” said Marie Tino, FWO’s director of marketing and fundraising. “They get to make pictures and caption them, and they are so proud of their art work when they get to see it in cards or frames. They’re having a blast.”
Greeting cards featuring consumer art, Tino added, are also for sale in the Freedom Treasure Resale Stores, and will also be auctioned at the organization’s 30th anniversary celebration coming up Feb. 8.
Among a variety of other tasks, Tino’s job includes planning all the social events for consumers. All in all, she said, it’s rewarding work.
“The day I don’t get a smile or a laugh it’s not worth it anymore,” she said. “But I always do. They make you smile and laugh and cry; every morning I come out to get my 50 hugs before going to my desk. You definitely have to love what you do to work here.”