Creating jobs, providing opportunitiesMost people only see products gleaming and packaged on shelves in stores, rarely are the middle steps to create these products seen. But tucked behind numerous warehouses in the south side of Alexandria, sits a building where a lot of this middle work is completed: the Alexandria Opportunity Center (AOC). What makes the AOC different than other businesses is that the center is not there to produce a product; it’s there to provide jobs to its workers or clients, all of whom have disabilities.
By: Caroline Roers, Echo Press Intern, Alexandria Echo Press
Most people only see products gleaming and packaged on shelves in stores, rarely are the middle steps to create these products seen.
But tucked behind numerous warehouses in the south side of Alexandria, sits a building where a lot of this middle work is completed: the Alexandria Opportunity Center (AOC).
What makes the AOC different than other businesses is that the center is not there to produce a product; it’s there to provide jobs to its workers or clients, all of whom have disabilities.
“The people that come here don’t do the traditional thing where they fill out an application and have an interview. These people are referred to us by social services and we are here to provide them with jobs,” executive director of AOC, Mike Burke noted.
At the opportunity center, the 133 current clients are able to do work for major companies in the surrounding area, such as 3M and Insty Prints, in a safe environment that fits their independence level.
“Our clients have barriers that would make them unsuccessful downtown,” Burke said. “If they have a bad day, we can help them and work out the problem. When, if they were in the normal job market, and they weren’t having a good day, they would most likely be fired.”
Each client is given a specific plan depending on their degree of independence. They work for as many hours as they can between 7 in the morning and 6 at night. This means anywhere from one to 20 hours a week.
“It just depends on the person and what their needs are,” Burke explained. “Some can do many different jobs while others can do only one specific job. Once again, it just depends on what they can physically and emotionally handle.”
Because each person is different, the opportunity center works to provide opportunities and work for every level of independence.
The work the clients do is mostly timely jobs that machines can’t do, so they must be done by hand. This means anything from putting the adhesive on the back of sand paper for 3M to putting together manuals.
“We basically do pieces of projects. We don’t make the product and then sell it. We just do parts of it and then give it back to the company to sell,” he said.
For instance, AOC does jar rolling for Tastefully Simple. The jarred and canned products come into AOC, clients wrap them in bubble wrap and they are brought back to Tastefully Simple where they are then packaged for transportation.
“If you get anything in a jar from Tastefully Simple, it probably came through the Opportunity Center,” he said. “The work we do in the building is all contract work with companies, such as 3M and Tastefully Simple.”
Other work contracts AOC has include Actuent Electrical, Insty Prints and Quality Printing.
“We are very fortunate that there are businesses in Alexandria who want to use the service,” Burke said.
Though AOC does make products for the companies, their foremost concern is their clients.
“The whole system is set up to create the most independent employment option for them,” he noted.
Aside from working at the warehouse, another option that the AOC gives its clients is supportive employment, where clients are provided transportation and help with jobs in the community, such as with Pizza Ranch and Hardee’s.
“In this case, we are really there as the safety net, so if they are having a bad day or there is friction between the employee and employer, we can help them work it out,” Burke explained.
Julie Schmidt is one of the clients in this program who works at both the AOC and Pizza Ranch, “I get to do all kinds of stuff. I like working here and being with all my coworkers.”
Another opportunity they have is a senior program where disabled seniors are able to come and do recreation activities, such as cooking and some outings.
In the future, the AOC is looking to expand both of these programs, as well as expand their client base and add an expansion to their building.
With so many intricate parts to the AOC, Burke’s 35-person staff is a large part of the center’s smooth work flow.
“We have management and a production team that works with social services and the companies,” he noted. “But our direct care staff are the people who are on the floor with the clients, providing them direction and supervision.”
However, they are also there for quality control so that when the products go back to the company, there is nothing wrong with them.
“The staff here is awesome,” Natasha Randall, one of AOC’s clients, added enthusiastically.
Though jars are continually being rolled, projects completed and new projects beginning, AOC would not be here without its clients.
“The reason we are here is for the clients,” Burke said. “Without them, we are nothing.”