The Arc Gateway and Pollak Industries gives Pensacola’s underserved community a chance and a job.
Pensacola News Journal
Bashfully at first and then with growing enthusiasm, Tyrone Carmichael described his job folding paper sleeves for potted plants and floral bouquets.
Demonstrating with his hands, he showed that the paper had to be folded just so, neatly and precisely. He noted with pride that he was the second-fastest employee in the workshop, and said he is finding ways to get quicker as part of a friendly competition with the top folder.
Though he has fun on the job, the opportunity to earn a living is something Carmichael doesn’t take for granted. For him and many of his co-workers — all men and women with developmental or intellectual disabilities — finding traditional work isn’t always easy. But working at Pollak Industries, he and his co-workers have the chance to support themselves, socialize with each other, learn new skills and set and achieve meaningful goals.
“It really helps me pay some bills, and it’s a good experience,” Carmichael said. “Every time I come here, I find a different way to do my job and make it better.”
Pollak Industries, a manufacturing workshop in West Pensacola, is a program of The Arc Gateway, a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities live a high quality of life and reach their full potential. At Pollak Industries, men and women who express a desire to work are hired to do manufacturing jobs such as making wooden stakes, scented candles and concrete parking bumpers.
The voluntary program has been in place for close to 50 years, and it employs around 80 clients of The Arc Gateway. Arc CEO Missy Rogers said it’s a work training program that allows clients to earn while they learn.
“They’re gaining the work skills that they need and that they can hopefully then transfer into the community into some type of work setting,” Rogers said. “They also learn skills like socialization and communication, and sometimes it can be something as basic as hygiene. So if they have some type of issue that’s not allowing them to work in the community appropriately, then we can teach them and work with them on all those skills, too.”
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Rogers said the program works to accommodate any client who wishes to participate. As an example, she said that the program created a custom tool to help a man with cerebral palsy sort and repackage Mardi Gras beads and that they had found many other similar solutions over the years.
“Our philosophy is that everybody can work,” Rogers said. “Work looks different for you than it does for me than it does for them, but everybody can work in some way, shape or form. And earning a paycheck, to these guys, it creates a great deal of pride.”
Rogers noted that many of Arc’s clients live on fixed incomes and receive less than $800 a month from the Social Security Administration.
Carmichael said he uses his paycheck to help cover bills, then puts away as much as he can into savings.
“I enjoy it,” he said of the work. “It always gives you something different to do where you’re never sitting around. They always want you doing something where you can better yourself.”
Still, as it has for most everyone, COVID-19 has thrown a few wrenches into the works at Pollak Industries. Arc’s chief operating officer, Cathy Lauterbach, said the workshop was currently operating at about 33% capacity.
“We have some individuals that cannot come back due to underlying health conditions or their age or their living circumstances,” Lauterbach said. “We also have limitations in the facility because we have to practice six feet of social distancing, so there’s only so many folks that we can fit in this building and still maintain that distance.”
The workshop isn’t meant to be a moneymaker for the nonprofit, and the revenue —along with state funding, donations, grants and proceeds from operations like an Arc paper shredding service — goes back into programs, overhead and payroll. Many of the funding streams have taken a hit during the pandemic, and because Arc serves a particularly vulnerable client base, it’s having to find ways to do more with less.
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Rogers said the organization had received a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan which it used to pay client and staff employees. She also said the nonprofit was grateful to have many community partners like Navy Federal Credit Union, which purchases parking bumpers; Pensacola Bay Brewery, which pays Pollak Industries to bottle their beer; and local hospitals that work with Pollak Industries to provide “brain bags” of learning materials to new mothers.
“We’re always looking for other businesses to partner with and work opportunities for our guys,” Rogers said. “They’re excellent workers, they’re reliable and they have skill sets that people sometimes don’t give them credit for.”
She added, “I think it’s important to remember they still have the same wants and needs as the non-disabled community. To have something to wake up for in the morning. To have a job and to have somewhere to go. To have the sense of pride of receiving that paycheck every two weeks. They have that same want and need.”
To learn more about The Arc Gateway and its services, or about Pollak Industries and its products, visit arc-gateway.org.
Kevin Robinson can be reached at [email protected] or 850-435-8527.
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