At one table, a group of people meticulously fastened together safety pins, four to a set. Some painstakingly counted out the pins. Those who could not count used hand-drawn guides--pieces of paper divided into four circles, one for each safety pin.
Their co-workers at a nearby table threaded string through straw hats. Behind them, a long row of employees carefully packeted computer software information.
The huge warehouse in which they worked buzzed with chatter and laughter. During their lunch hour, many paired off with sweethearts; as in any workplace, romances have blossomed.
It was a typical day at California Elwyn, Orange County’s largest training and hiring center for the developmentally disabled. Local companies contract out simple but essential tasks to Elwyn’s neurologically disadvantaged “clients.”
On a recent day, employees boxed bags of potato chips into snack packs, added rubber tips to lawn chair legs and wrapped cardboard posters with plastic.
Elwyn employs 225 people at its Fountain Valley base and 76 at a smaller branch in Anaheim. But if all goes as planned, those numbers will dwindle.
“Our philosophy used to be that we would train people and then place them,” said Joseph F. Piccari, executive director of California Elwyn. “The new trend in working with developmentally disabled people is to place them and then train them on the site rather than at the center.”
Eventually, officials hope to transform the 17-year-old Fountain Valley factory into an employment placement office. Already, California Elwyn has moved 83 of its employees into outside jobs at hotels, fast-food restaurants and veterinary clinics.
Elwyn Institute was founded in 1852. It is well-known and respected in its home state of Pennsylvania, and most of its 40 centers have sprung up on the East Coast. Its first California base opened in 1974 at the urging of parents who had relocated here from Pennsylvania with their developmentally disabled children.
Until this year, when a small employment placement office was started up in Hawthorne, Orange County claimed California’s only Elwyn centers.
“We’ve been fortunate to have Elwyn here,” said Bob Clatterbuck, training specialist for the Santa Ana office of the California Department of Rehabilitation, which provides state funds to Elwyn and eight other local programs for developmentally disabled people.
“Because Elwyn has a large program back East, it has a solid financial base,” Clatterbuck said. “It has been able to develop and grow over the years.”
Employees are paid a percentage of minimum wage equitable to their productivity. “I like to spend my money on my favorite food, pizza,” said John Tighe, 53, as he attached string ties to a sombrero.
One happy couple--Linda Samuelson, 43, and George Jorgenson, 69--sauntered by to announce their April wedding plans. “They’ve been talking about that for five years,” Elwyn spokeswoman Susan DuMontier confided.
Such companionships are a fringe benefit of working at Elwyn, but employees also appreciate their paychecks. “I have fun here, and then I like to put my money in the bank,” said Diana Torres, 52.
Outside jobs, Piccari said, offer employees more money to put in the bank. Generally, companies pay staff employees placed by Elwyn better wages than the center’s production line employees can make from contracted work.
Furthermore, developmentally disabled people often function at a higher level when they are integrated with “so-called normal folks,” Piccari said. “When you put 200 of these people together, they tend to moderate each others’ behavior and work at the pace of their co-workers,” he said. “They don’t grow personally and professionally.”
Employees and their employer mutually profit, Piccari said: “Our people are very reliable. And they will stick to doing something the way they learned to do it; they don’t cut corners.”
After matching an employee with a job, Elwyn managers help train and oversee their charges. “The job coach initially goes out with the individual for a couple of hours a day, and that eventually fades into a couple of hours a week,” Piccari said. “We will be there for our people for as long as they need us.”
The center recently placed five workers in the housekeeping department of the Courtyard By Marriott Hotel in Fountain Valley. Job coach Linda Hess has been teaching the crew to fold towels, vacuum floors and scrub bathtubs.
Although an Elwyn supervisor is on the site with them, employee Peter Shuhardt proudly reminded, “We don’t work for Elwyn anymore--we work for the Marriott.”
Shuhardt, 28, said that he was having a “fantastic time” at his new job. “I’m hoping to open a Marriott of my own someday,” the gregarious young man joked.
He and his four Elwyn buddies--members of an 18-person cleaning staff--were busily folding towels. They approached the chore more slowly than would most--but also more precisely.
“I’m excited to have them here,” Marriott housekeeping manager Patricia Schille said. “They’re so friendly and enthusiastic. They always get to work at least 30 minutes early.”
“Yes, I take the early bus here,” Shuhardt said. “I don’t want to be late.”