Real Work for Real Wages Boosts Real Self-Sufficiency
By Dwayne Webb
About the Author
Dwayne Webb is the program director for day and employment services with St. John’s Community Services in Martin, TN. St. John’s Community Services supports adults with disabilities in Weakley, Obion, Henry, Lake and Carroll Counties in Northwest Tennessee through community-based residential and day services designed to assist people to become respected, contributing members of their communities.
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Society often views the measure of a man through his work. This viewpoint is understandable from the simple aspect that work gives us a sense of pride, identity and personal achievement. For Gerald Smith, that journey began in 1975 when he began working in a sheltered workshop in rural northwest Tennessee.
Over the years, Gerald engaged in a wide array of contract work figured on a piece-work rate scale, in other words, for pennies a part, and worked in numerous janitorial teams of people with disabilities, known as enclaves, generally at or just above minimum wage. Gerald often had issues with attendance at the sheltered workshop, due in part to health-related reasons, but mainly because he wanted to work out in the community. Gerald had had previous opportunities to work independently in the community but never quite found that right fit. Over time, this began to have a negative impact on Gerald, affecting his confidence and self-esteem because he knew he could do much more.
As time went on, Gerald’s provider agency was assumed by another company. In July 2012, St. John’s Community Services in Martin, TN, began to provide Gerald’s services and began converting operations from the traditional facility-based model to a 100% community-based day and employment services model. This transformation would prove to have a major impact on Gerald’s life and present him with new opportunities, allowing him to become more self-sufficient.
Gerald left the sheltered workshop in June 2016 as it was set to close in July, and he began working at E-Pak in Union City, TN. Elgin Fastener Group, E-Pak and St. John’s negotiated to move an assembly contract away from the sheltered workshop and streamline it into a competitive environment within the E-Pak plant. The contract itself was one that Gerald had the specific skills to master and to do so at a competitive level. It was also a contract Gerald thoroughly enjoyed working on, and it gave him an opportunity to earn real wages for real work.
Since starting at E-Pak in June, Gerald has assembled small parts for use in lawn mower engines. He has also expanded his work to include quality control aspects on three other production jobs. Gerald’s job coach has been impressed with the changes he has noticed in Gerald. Gerald’s attendance has been wonderful, and his overall attitude has improved remarkably. Gerald socializes with co-workers often, and the job coach believes Gerald feels like he has a place and purpose now.
Charlotte Erwin, the owner and manager of E-Pak, said, “I am impressed with not only how consistent Gerald is in making it to work every day but in that he produces consistently and never complains about what is asked of him.”
Gerald lives independently and depends on his work income to pay his bills. When asked about working at E-Pak, Gerald said, “I have made new friends, worked on new things, and I have been able to buy some things I couldn’t buy before. I have put money in a savings account for emergencies, for times we don’t work, and maybe take a trip sometime.”
Gerald also said, “I enjoy going on community outings once in a while when we are out of work, and I can afford to do that now, but most of all I am glad to be able to stay independent.”