Children's Haven Grows Up

By Hannah Wallace July 31, 2004

Way back in the early 1960s, the service organization Civitans sold enough Claxton fruitcake--$26,500 worth-to purchase a bucolic 26-acre piece of property out east on DeSoto Road as a new home for the then-fledgling Children's Haven and Adult Community Services, Inc.

This year, the nonprofit organization that fruitcake built is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Along the way, it has expanded its property to 32 acres, grown to an annual budget of $3.8 million and added a plethora of programs in Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte and DeSoto counties that train disabled consumers (the current politically correct word for clients) to make their way in the workforce. Children's Haven works with more than 700 of them every day across the spectrum of disabilities (from Down Syndrome to autism, cerebral palsy, brain injury and all other forms of developmental disability).

Today many area businesses, from Eaton Aerospace and Sun Hydraulics to Publix, McDonalds and Sweet Tomatoes, either employ Children's Haven consumers or give them valuable training through contract work. Children's Haven has become the largest supported employment program between Tampa and Fort Myers, placing some 3,400 disabled people in the workforce since 1988 alone, says John Tirpak, co-director of its vocational services program.

In its occupational training program, 20 businesses give Children's Haven a wide variety of assignments, most of it assembly work accomplished on the DeSoto Road campus. Sarasota-based Action Bolt and Tool, for example, this year contracted with the organization to bag and seal one million screws, two to a bag. Children's Haven workers earned a piece rate established by the U.S. Wage and Labor Board for their six-month effort. At the same time, they gained valuable job training skills, like staying on task, for example.

Children's Haven also manages a school-to-work program called WorkTrek in all Manatee and Sarasota county high schools, counseling teens with physical or developmental disabilities who most likely won't go on to secondary education. Eighty participate in the six-week program at any one time, both in their schools and on the campus of Children's Haven. "We give them employability skills and training-how to fill out a resume and job application, how to dress appropriately in the workplace, how to talk to your supervisor, etc.," says Ryan Stoyles, director of marketing and fundraising. "Then we place them in jobs in the community." Publix, McDonalds, Shells Seafood Restaurants and Albertson's take part, as do retirement communities like Anchin Pavilion and Alderman Oaks. A job coach from Children's Haven does the initial on-site training with the teens, then returns to their work sites periodically to check up on them.

Reliability, good attitudes and low turnover are virtues cited by employers who hired the developmentally disabled. Civic responsibility is another. Natalie Shevick, general manager of the Steak 'n Shake on Cattlemen Road, hired two Children's Haven consumers, one as a porter, the other as a dishwasher. "Employing the handicapped is something we all need to do; it's part of our responsibility to society," she says. Eaton Aerospace's Laura Layman agrees. "It's our way of giving back to the community," she says.

Another teen program, High School/High Tech, serves youngsters with physical or learning disabilities who, with the right encouragement, can go on to postsecondary education. The Able Trust this year named it the outstanding High School/High Tech project of the 13 it funds in Florida.

"Everything about our agency is empowerment," says Stoyles. "We want our consumers to be as independent as possible."

Tirpak credits the region's chambers of commerce for doing an excellent job of informing their members about the workers available through Children's Haven.

"Our job is to fill niches for labor," he says. "When you deliver a quality product, word gets around."

Filed under
Show Comments