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I run a workshop with people who have mental retardation and other mental health disabilities like Down syndrome or schizophrenia. We're the last step before community-based employment — if they're able, our clients go on to work cleaning jobs out in the community, for example.
In the workshop, we teach clients to perform basic manual work. The jobs we do in the workshop range from sorting hangers for a uniform company to doing mailings for local businesses. We also sometimes organize machinery for a nearby crematorium. The clients are paid by piecework, based on the amount of work they complete throughout the day. They don't make much. The bi-weekly paycheck, on average, is probably about $80. That's $8 a day. But our clients all receive aid from various government services, so their financial needs are met.
Some of our clients come to us out of school, while others come to us after being released from institutions. Typically, they're in school until about age 21, and then they start looking for a program like ours. After getting out of school or being released from an institution, they'll be assigned a case manager who helps them find an appropriate place. They'll either go to a workshop or a day program, the difference being that you don't perform work in a day program. After a trial period, assuming we can accommodate them and they're happy here, they'll start working. Depending on the person, they might move on to community-based employment in as little as six weeks. But others never move on — some clients have been here for 20 years. It's all based on the client's productivity and functionality. And occasionally, it depends on how much the client's family is pushing them to move on to a job in the community.
Many of our clients, though, have been somewhat neglected by their families. The majority of our clients live in group homes. They come to the workshop on a regular 9 to 5, Monday through Friday work schedule.
I enjoy what I do, but I've worked with some really terrible people — fellow staffers, not clients. I've seen multiple people fired for abusing clients, and even two who were fired for having sex with clients. Beyond that, a number of the staffers I work with just aren't very smart. They can't do simple math. Many of them have been working here for a long time, and they're also pretty bitter, which is bad because they'll take that bitterness out on the clients.
Working with the clients ranges from being a whole lot of fun to really annoying. Just now, I had to escort someone out because he was throwing chairs. I get hit at least five or six times a week. I've been spit on and bitten. But I also get pictures drawn for me.
I'd eventually like to move on from this job. Becoming a case manager is a good option, but you only get to interact with your clients about once a month.
Right after I started this job about 10 years ago, I got pretty burned out. I was drinking six-packs every night. Another staff member put it to me this way: "You're being paid to use up all your compassion on a daily basis."
As told to Hillary Reinsberg