Joan D. Harms: Sheltered workshops provide vital support - The Buffalo News
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Joan D. Harms: Sheltered workshops provide vital support

It is with gratitude that I write in response to two recent News articles: “Allentown Industries honors its own” and “Sheltered workshops fading away.” The stories were about the real and devastating possibility of closing workshops for people with disabilities across New York State.

Sometimes referred to as sheltered workshops, they provide a safe, friendly and productive place for participants to work. Those who get up every day, with difficulty, and make their way to the workshops, with difficulty, honestly love their jobs. It is their life support to the outside world, which is far too difficult for them to cope with. It is family for some who have little or no family left. And it is the place to gather with friends and colleagues. People earn a salary, which provides buying power in their community and, most importantly, gives them a feeling of positive self-worth.

Allentown recently recognized 99 employees for their milestone year of employment. Amazingly, the span of time recognized was from five to 45 years. Just imagine the courage and fortitude of these people with disabilities.

To say this was an emotional ceremony is an understatement. Stirring photos in The News captured the sense of pride and accomplishment of Allentown’s employees and their families.

The story on sheltered workshops highlighted workers intently involved in their individual job activity, and families shared commentary about the importance of these workshops in the lives of their disabled loved ones.

Agencies like Allentown Industries are in jeopardy of losing federal and state funding for workshops for people with special needs, most of whom are unable to find work elsewhere.

Allentown, the adult division of Heritage Centers, is a local non-profit organization that employs nearly 1,000 people and serves 3,000 individual vocational, service coordination, legal and advocacy programming needs.

The agency provides meaningful vocational and day services to adults and transitioning students with disabilities. These services vary according to interests and skill, while providing levels of support based on the individual’s needs. It provides supervision to nearly 400 adults who are contributing members of our workforce. And it provides on-site contract work for more than 150 local and regional companies.

Allentown’s furniture refinishing division has become Western New York’s largest and most dependable hand-refinishing business, with facilities in the Northtowns and Southtowns. Similar shops across the state employ 8,000 disabled people.

The importance of these workshops remaining open is imperative to the survival of people like my son, Bob, who was born 47 years ago. He has been employed by Allentown for 25 years and was an honoree on April 11. He has missed only a few days on the job. Bob’s job is important to him and his survival, and he looks forward to going there five days a week. It provides him with positive self-worth.

Bob and other workshop participants have come a long way. What does the future hold for them without these workshops? Will they endure the travesty of an empty room and the monotonous drone of a television set? What will happen to their positive self-worth?

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