Mentally and physically disabled adults ‘learn quickly that (we) expect them to work hard and make themselves useful to society.’
Daniel Milligan’s limp was barely noticeable as he carried a bucket and some brushes toward the dirty couch he and five of his classmates were to clean in their upholstery class.
The other students were busy talking and scrubbing cushions while Milligan, 40, concentrated on the forceful strokes of his brush.
“I like working with my hands,” Milligan said, pausing a few moments between words. “I think I would like to start my own upholstery business someday.”
Last year, when problems with his artificial leg caused Milligan to lose his job, starting a business was the last thing on his mind. Climbing ladders at the warehouse where he worked had proven so painful that Milligan began calling in sick. Eventually he was fired for absenteeism, he said.
After months of looking for a job, Milligan, says he discovered how scarce jobs are for an adult with a physical impairment, a learning disability and limited skills.
But now he feels he has a chance at some of those jobs thanks to You Can Inc., a nonprofit agency founded in March in Hawaiian Gardens that trains and places mentally and physically disabled adults in janitorial-type jobs. Students learn how to clean carpets and upholstery, lay tiles and do minor repairs.
The three-month program is broken into 13 classes that cover career planning, safety on the job, floor resurfacing, office maintenance, use of cleaning chemicals and basic janitorial skills. Students are tested after they complete each class.
Students are referred to the agency by the state Department of Rehabilitation, which helps physically and mentally disabled adults find employment through counseling and training.
There are many programs that offer services to the disabled, but the agency’s director says what makes You Can Inc. unique is his approach in preparing them to lead independent, productive lives.
“These are people who are down and out and need a big push,” said Donald Cronin. “Some of them have tried other programs where they were babied, but here they learn quickly that I expect them to work hard and make themselves useful to society.”
Five days a week Milligan rides his red motor scooter from his Whittier home to the You Can workshop at 22419 Norwalk Blvd. in Hawaiian Gardens where he and the five other students spend four hours each morning working on various projects.
“It’s been real hard finding out that not many people care about” people who have a physical or mental disability, Milligan said. “People shy away from you and don’t want to understand or give you a chance. Here they give you a chance.”
The first student graduated in May and was hired as a stock boy at a Lucky’s market, Cronin said.
Cronin, 56, and his wife Phyllis learned to empathize with the disabled while trying to find the right schools and jobs for their mentally disabled son, who is now 34. It has enabled them to understand their students’ frustrations, they said.
“We were used to being shuffled here and there from one agency to another,” said Cronin, who left his job as a vocational teacher in the Garden Grove Unified School District in 1986. “We have been through much of the same things these guys have been through.”
Cronin said he thought about going back to teaching in a public school district, but said he was frustrated with the school system’s inability to prepare students for the real world.
When they decided to start You Can Inc., the Cronins thought their past experiences would prepare them for the struggle ahead. What they were not ready for was having 20 cities in Los Angeles and Orange counties--every one they approached--refuse their request for funds.
“We got tired of having doors slam in our face,” Donald Cronin said. “But there comes a time when you have to stand up and back up what you say or become a slave to the system. These folks are capable adults who deserve better than a runaround.”
The Cronins had to reach into their own pockets for $20,000 last winter to get the program started. At the same time, they were applying to dozens of agencies, searching for whatever funding was available. Running the agency has since become a full-time job for both of them.
Their funding applications paid off when earlier this month they received a $70,000 federal Job Training Partnerships Act grant.
The money will be used to buy equipment and pay for a part-time assistant who now volunteers his services. The Cronins also will be able to draw a salary for the first time in more than a year.
“We are disappointed that no one would give us any money, but from here we go on. There is no turning back,” Donald Cronin said.
Phyllis Cronin did not look as enthusiastic. “Sometimes I think we are crazy to do this,” she said wearily. “But Donald believes in this so much. Then when I see Daniel and the others I think, we can’t close the doors on them.”
Their office is sparsely decorated with used and donated furniture and the workshop next door needs carpeting and paint, but Donald Cronin has plans for an elaborate work room filled with cleaning equipment and other machinery, work benches, a library of instruction manuals and other resources. He says he hopes to receive more funding so he can add a class to teach students how to assemble circuit boards.
Cronin’s optimism has spread to his students who at first, Cronin said, did not know what to expect from the program.
“I know this will be a good program because I’ve been through a lot of them and this one is different,” said Robert Sandoval, 35, who has been partially paralyzed since a motorcycle accident 12 years ago. “This guy doesn’t let you get away with anything.”
Cronin’s enthusiasm has even charmed his landlord, who since January has agreed to waive the rent until the agency can sustain itself.
“I don’t know why I am doing this really,” Bernard P. Mertell said about his decision to give the Cronins a break on their rent. “Donald’s enthusiasm is non-stop. He’s got me believing in this project.”