VALLEY CHARITIES: AFTER THE EARTHQUAKE : Training the Disabled to Work, Earn

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A large man they all called Tiny was working on a production line. His oversized fingers could barely maneuver the jagged-edged picture hangers--which are even smaller than his pinky finger--into the miniature plastic bags in which they must go.

His supervisor tried to persuade him to move to another job--something perhaps more suited to his size and abilities. But Tiny wouldn't hear of it.

"I have the most important job in the place," he told Matt Lynch, executive director of Build Rehabilitation Industries. "If I don't put the picture hangers in their packages, just think of all the pretty pictures that will never get put up on the wall."

Tiny is a client at the San Fernando center, which trains disabled people for jobs. He and all of his colleagues are mentally retarded or learning disabled. For most, this is the first time they've had the opportunity to earn a paycheck, to develop a work ethic, to feel that they too can contribute to society.

But the organization needs help to accomplish its goals.

"Of course, we would like computers and office equipment," Lynch said. "It would be nice to be able to train some of our more able people in office work.

"But our dire needs are much more simple than that. We really need chairs. It would make such a difference in these people's lives if they just had a comfortable chair to sit in while they do their work every day."

Build has risen above its grim appearance to be a place of hope and pride for the nearly 100 people working and learning there. The squat and yellowed offices bustle with smiles and goodwill, inspired perhaps in part by the Texas-sized bowl brimming over with candy in the executive director's office.

This is a place where obviously overworked people "make do" in an already technology-poor office that lost equipment in the Northridge earthquake. And this is also where other people come to take out a new lease on life. Along the way, many of them discover they have just now begun to live.

And, for the first time in their lives, they can head out to the lunch truck and buy a meatball sandwich with money they know they have earned.

Tiny's colleagues, in the rear of the facility's large warehouse, hunched over tall tables as they packaged diet food. The packages are banded seven together and put in a box. Numbered boxes are drawn on the tabletops in each work station.

At the other end of the building, people perched precariously on stools or sat in tattered-looking chairs as they attempted to attach tiny pieces of jade to mailers.

Last year, Build workers did all of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's mailers. They inspected more than a million Dancing Raisins after the original factory made a mistake on them. They dressed dolls, counted screws and cut lengths of rope.

It is not all charity that Build is looking for this holiday season. The organization needs jobs for its workers.

And, Lynch pointed out, employers can receive a Targeted Jobs Tax Credit for employing one of Build's clients. Build itself will reimburse a company for half the training wages of a client, Lynch also said.

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