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Cantalician Center transitions away from sheltered workshop and adds refugees to labor pool

Inside a Sonwil Distribution Center location in Cheektowaga, Charles Hardy was focused on his job.

He and his co-workers steadily packed boxes of dog biscuits into cardboard cartons.

“We’ve got to keep this line moving at all times,” Hardy said during a pause in his work. The cartons kept moving through a machine, as workers filled them, sealed them, and stacked them for a forklift truck to haul away.

In the neighboring line, Ibrahim Dirye beamed and sweated as he talked about keeping the flow going. “Time is money,” he said.

Hardy and Dirye are not Sonwil employees, but they were clearly invested in their jobs. They were working at Sonwil through Diversified Labor Solutions, the employment services division of the Cantalician Center for Learning. The division provides job opportunities not only to adults with developmental disabilities like Hardy, but to refugees like Dirye, as well.

The Cantalician Center created Diversified Labor Solutions as its own brand amid a broader shift taking place around the state. Sheltered workshops are going away, at the state government’s direction. The goal is to transition those workers into integrated settings, where disabled and non-disabled employees work side by side.

“They asked us to find more inclusive settings, community-based settings for the individuals to perform their tasks and duties and become more productive in their everyday lives,” said Darren Lisicki, Diversified’s director of employment services.

The center responded by establishing a new identity for its labor division and moving those operations into 14,000 square feet in the Tri-Main Center, a facility that is home to a variety of employers. Diversified has more than 200 employees who work on behalf of area manufacturers and distributors, either from the Tri-Main space or directly on site, at places like Sonwil. They handle tasks like packaging, kit assembly and shipping and handling.

Disabled workers and refugees alike have grown accustomed to the rhythms of the workplace and the expectations of employers. For both groups of workers, Diversified hopes the jobs serve as learning opportunities that help them advance to another level of employment.

“We don’t expect any of our (disabled) individuals or the refugees to have this be their last job ever,” Lisicki said. “This is really their entry job. This is the beginning of their journey.”

For the workers, the jobs provide a chance to build their skills and experience. For local companies like Sonwil, the workers are an important source of labor, capable of adapting to a project’s requirements, at times on short notice.

Don Dimitroff, Sonwil’s chief sales officer, said the workers are reliable and produce good results: “We wouldn’t continue with them if it was otherwise.”

Lisicki said Diversified’s social mission, while compelling, isn’t enough on its own to keep businesses coming back for its labor, when they have alternatives like temporary staffing agencies. “They need the work done on time, they need it done correctly,” he said.

Lisicki, who came to Cantalician from the packaging industry, made his first contact with Sonwil like a true salesman: he knocked on a door until someone opened it. Sonwil has turned into a steady source of business at multiple sites. Diversified’s roster of companies also includes 3M Ocelo, Mentholatum and Norampac. Mentholatum said Diversified employees have volunteered to work additional hours when needed, to keep up with the Orchard Park plant’s production.

The region’s growing refugee population has added a unique dimension to Diversified’s work force, making it more integrated, just as the state directed.

Anne Spisiak, executive director of the Cantalician Center, said the idea of adding refugees to the labor mix grew out of a connection she had with someone at Catholic Charities. As the idea took off, several organizations that serve refugees got involved. It was a mutually beneficial relationship: the center needed more workers to support businesses, and refugees were looking for work experiences.

“As the needs of our customers increased, we were able to grow our workforce relatively quickly by word of mouth from the international community,” Spisiak said. Now, about half of Diversified’s employees are refugees, and their growing ranks have made it possible for Diversified to line up work with more businesses.

Just like the disabled individuals employed by Diversified, the refugees receive support in adjusting to a workplace, she said.

“We see a lot of people who spent a good part of their lives in refugee resettlement camps, not even in villages or towns or anything like that,” Spisiak said. Sometimes, unexpected cultural differences arise, like the employee who couldn’t make it to work one day and tried to send an uncle – who wasn’t a Diversified worker – to do his job in his place.

Some refugees have been hired for full-time jobs on Diversified’s staff, where they serve as supervisors, act as interpreters and spread the word about job openings.

Dirye, 42, followed that path. He began working as a Diversified employee three years ago. After impressing his superiors with his work ethic and ability to adapt quickly to his work, he was promoted to supervisor. If employees are sick or absent, Dirye is the one who notifies his boss, in order to bring in more workers to fill the gap. Each morning, he picks up some employees on his way to work from his home on Niagara Street in Buffalo.

“Every morning, we start at 7 o’clock,” he said. “We’re never late.”

On the line, Dirye was working as hard as anyone, filling the boxes. Watching him from a distance, his superiors marveled at his life’s journey.

Dirye comes from Somaliland, an autonomous region of the nation of Somalia. For years, he lived apart from his wife and two daughters, unsure where they were, until the Red Cross helped reconnect them. The day they were finally to be reunited in Buffalo, Dirye modestly asked for a half-day off. (His superiors insisted he take more time.)

Hardy, 58, was equally diligent about his work. He explained to a visitor how the task had to be completed, and rattled off the schedule the workers follow for taking lunch and breaks and getting back to the job. He typically works three or four days a week with Diversified, going to whatever workplace he is needed at.

“Right now, we’ve got a lot of work,” he said. “Everybody’s got to come in.”

Hardy was looking forward to payday, which comes every two weeks, and was already thinking about his Christmas shopping.

Diversified recently welcomed guests to its Tri-Main location, to showcase the work space it moved into this year, salute its employees and call attention to the employment division’s new identity.

Kirk Mauer, director of the regional office for the state’s Office for People With Developmental Disabilities, complimented Cantalician on its transition. He acknowledged it has been a difficult adjustment for many agencies and their clients around the state, but he said the change was both necessary and worthwhile. Along with Cantalician, organizations including Allentown Industries and Goodwill Industries of Western New York, which also work with local businesses, are impacted.

“Not everybody thinks closing down sheltered workshops is a good idea,” Mauer said. “There are people who like to hold on to the familiar and on to the past.”

But he noted that many once-familiar businesses that failed to change with the times, such as Howard Johnson’s, have faded away.

“The sheltered workshop way of providing services is no longer seen as the best way,” Mauer said.

Mauer said workers will gain a lot by working outside of a sheltered-workshop, by building friendships, earning money and developing skills alongside people from all walks of life.

“That’s what an integrated workplace is all about,” Mauer said. “And that’s what American should have a right to experience.”

Lisicki was thinking about more employers he could connect the workers with.

“We’ve changed the model and we’re growing,” he said. “We want more people to come in here.”

email: mglynn@buffnews.com