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Warehouse Jobs Let Developmentally Disabled Go to Work on Their Dreams

Times Staff Writer

Don Andersen dreams of being the drummer for the heavy-metal rock group Bon Jovi. Before that, though, he wouldn’t mind having a girlfriend, his own apartment and a four-wheel-drive truck, not necessarily in that order.

“Most of all,” he said, “I like heavy metal. And I know I’d be good at it.”

The hard-hatted Andersen sometimes moves heavy metal as a warehouse employee of the Assn. for Retarded Citizens-San Diego. Along with 11 other developmentally disabled workers, he reports to work about 9 a.m. Monday through Friday and works until mid-afternoon in a Santee storeroom that is as conspicuously clean as it is friendly--because of the men (and one woman) who haul the crates, drive the forklifts and ferry books from platform to truck.

Comes With the Territory

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Bob Christiansen, a large man with shaggy hair, a Falstaffian beard and a tiny earring, is the warehouse supervisor. He has no training as a counselor, but that comes with the territory in a job like this. The people who work here--and who resent being called mentally retarded--often pour their hearts out to Christiansen.

“Tell a story about working here?” he said. “An anecdote? Wow . . . where would I start?”

What workers often tell Christiansen is what anyone might share with a friend--problems with girlfriends, with Mom and Dad, with money. He listens and tries to help, but mostly, he said, his role in this 9,000-square-foot building is to ensure that stock is moved from here to there, regardless of who moves it.

The Assn. for Retarded Citizens-San Diego recently received a $250,000 contract from the Putnam Publishing Group to provide warehousing and storage, pickup and delivery and myriad other functions for its Tuffy Book division.

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Larry Luers, ARC operations coordinator, said that this was hardly unusual, and that large corporations nationwide are turning more frequently to the developmentally disabled to handle such jobs.

“We’ve proven ourselves to the business community,” he said. “We have contracts with a number of large companies. We do work with the government, with irrigation companies, with building contractors. We’re more than two decades old, and we’re a nonprofit organization. We have ARCs all over the country, but San Diego has the biggest in the nation because it has more chapters.

Basic Goal

“Our basic goal is to train the client--the developmentally disabled person, as we call them--to perform jobs well enough to be integrated into the employment sector in the outside world,” Luers said.

Kimberly Smith, director of vocational services for ARC-San Diego, said eight centers throughout the county offer on-the-job training in a work environment. Some centers offer work that is more basic; warehouses, such as the one in Santee, serve a “higher-functioning person--those who can manage their own money, live on their own and then cope in the outside world,” she said.

In the past seven months, eight clients have been referred for outside employment, Smith said. Usually they end up in fast-food outlets, as janitors in hospitals or dishwashers in restaurants. She said 1,400 “clients” are served by ARC-San Diego, which also owns a doughnut shop and will soon open its own cafe in North Park. Many of the workers are part of the maintenance crew at Sea World, she noted.

Christiansen was working as a truck driver for the doughnut shop when he heard of the warehouse opening. He took it eagerly, but said he sometimes finds the job stressful because the work is hard and because he often is a father figure for the high-spirited crew he commands.

“The clients here are good,” he said. “They’re real high-functioning. When we get going, these guys can really turn and burn. The guys here are some of the hardest-working people I know.

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‘Just Like a Daddy’

“What really feels good--what feels great--is a job well done. We got jammed solid this week with big containers, new books from the Orient. We moved almost all of ‘em. That feels good.

“Sometimes, though, I’m just like a daddy. These guys get into petty squabbles sometimes. Maybe they’re playing around, and one guy gets mad. Somebody starts throwing stuff. Between the phone ringing and the fax machine spitting and these guys cutting up, well, sometimes it just piles up. But most of the time, these guys are great. They move it.”

Christiansen said he’s never met people with a better attitude, that payday is like a pep rally. The workers clap and dance and cheer--over money that ranges from 87 cents to $2.52 an hour.

“These people have goals and dreams,” he said. “They want to be independent. They want a life of their own, just like we all do. They want to feel happy and loved.”

Ray Lopez, 32, is considered one of the better workers. Christiansen said the sadness of training someone well and having them become proficient is that he loses his best people.

Lopez was loading books (“Peter Rabbit’s Big Adventure”) into a box and talking about the labels that society has chosen to stick him with: “I don’t really feel” developmentally disabled, he said. “I don’t feel that we’re disabled. I feel I’m just a normal person.”

Hardest Day in His Life

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He said the hardest day in his life, the saddest, was when he left his family to venture out on his own. Now, however, they’ve adjusted to his being away, and he wouldn’t trade anything for independence.

“I feel success in so many ways,” Lopez said. “I’ve never had this much go well for me. Now I have a lot more to look forward to in my future.”

Don Andersen, his buddy, lives in a group home in East San Diego but dreams of the day he can be on his own--and live with the love of his life.

“Well, if she was nice and she was cute and she would be nice to me and I would be nice to her, that would be great,” Andersen said. “I can’t think of anything I’d like more. Before I came here, I never thought of having dreams like that.”


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