Disabilities don’t get in the way for these employees of Chinook Enterprises

On the campus of Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon, Wash., the familiar buzz of a lawnmower is heard. It’s a cloudy day. The sky is gray. A light drizzle falls. But the workers pushing the mowers don’t seem to mind. In fact, they seem genuinely happy to be there.

Denny Greiner, ground maintenance manager with Chinook Enterprises, looks on as his landscape crew mows the ryegrass lawn on the college campus. He’s as much manager as he is instructor and coach. Of the 11 people on the crew, seven are adults with disabilities such as Down syndrome or learning disabilities.

At Chinook Enterprises, seven of 11 employees on the grounds crew are people with disabilities. Here, Drew Beals uses a Honda mower on the ryegrass lawn in front of Ford Hall on the Skagit Valley College campus in Mount Vernon, Wash. Chinook Enterprises is a nonprofit that helps the disabled.

Nearby, grounds production workers Drew Beals and Tony Mata operate Honda push mowers with precision, following mowing patterns to create a uniform landscape.

“As a supervisor, you just have to be patient and learn about their disability. Know exactly what their disability is, what their needs are, and adjust their production and their work by what they have the ability to do. For instance, Tony can weed-eat. He can drive a tractor. Drew can’t drive a tractor, but he can mow lawns and he’s really polished at that. So you make adjustments depending on the disability,” Greiner says.

Chinook Enterprises is a nonprofit social enterprise that serves as a employment conduit for people with disabilities. A nonprofit organization, it is considered a social enterprise that serves as a community employment conduit for people with disabilities. The organization trains people for work, and since 1980 has helped more than 750 people in western Washington to find jobs. Some of those jobs are with local businesses in retail, office and manufacturing companies, and others are through the company’s own divisions such as the grounds maintenance division. Chinook Enterprises maintains more than 200 acres of ryegrass turf per week on the Skagit Valley College campus, on the grounds of two local hospitals, at the Port of Anacortes, at a local marina, and at a cemetery.

Mata is 22 years old. He participated in on-the-job training in the grounds maintenance division at Chinook Enterprises and has worked as part of the grounds crew for the past two years.

First job ever

“No, I never had a job before. I always practiced mowing with my dad, my family. My Denny, my boss, helped me a lot. I’m happy to have the job,” Mata says. “I try to do a good job everyday. I try to help my team.”

Like Mata, many of the people served through Chinook Enterprises, and similar organizations, would probably not be able to find a job on their own. At Chinook Enterprises, each employee is assessed for their capabilities and trained with skills so that they can succeed.

“The first thing we do is find out what their interests are. We do a trial to see if they have the stamina, and what they’re going to need; if they like it. We have a trainer come out with them to provide training. It sometimes takes a couple of years before people get really good at it. The training lasts as long as it takes,” says Robert Martin, executive director of Chinook Enterprises.

Left to Right: Robert Martin, executive director of Chinook Enterprises, Denny Greiner, grounds maintenance manager, and Lisa Knowles, job development coordinator, on the campus of Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon, Wash.

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor show that employees with disabilities have a 93.6 percent retention rate. Once hired, disabled employees are loyal. The challenge for most of them is just getting in the door. That’s where organizations like Chinook Enterprises come in.

“It makes great sense because many of the workers we have, the longevity is going to be much longer. They’re not going to be burned out on the job. They’re going to be oftentimes more excited about the job that they have. They may not be as fast, but they’re not going to call in sick 59 times,” Martin says.

He adds, “The people that could be hired from one of the organizations like ours have a proven track record. They have experience and they want to work. They’re great workers, they’re productive, they’re motivated, and they’re excited to be part of a team. When somebody gets hired and they have a condition that makes it harder for them to find employment, hiring them does a couple of things: it puts money in their pockets, which means they’re going to be less dependent on government sources and other kinds of grants, so it makes them productive; and they’re able to give back to the community and become a productive citizen. That’s huge. Making people productive citizens is a really big deal.”

A federal program called AbilityOne is the largest federal source of employment for people who are blind or have significant disabilities. Through a national network of more than 600 nonprofit agencies, like Chinook Enterprises, the program provides products and services to the federal government at fair market prices. The procurement of these products and services results in employment of more than 50,000 individuals around the country. These individuals work in manufacturing, janitorial services, and, yes, landscaping.

Chinook Enterprises is a registered with the AbilityOne program, as is the Brevard Achievement Center in Rockledge, Fla.

“Regarding our federal employment sites, at the V.A. Clinic in Viera, Fla., we have five employees who take care of lawn maintenance, as well as perform beautification projects that are outside the scope of their normal duties. At Patrick Air Force Base in Cocoa Beach, Fla., we have three employees that maintain their ball fields,” says Rosalind Weiss, marketing and development administrator for the Brevard Achievement Center.

Before any disabled adult is provided a grounds job, they’re interviewed and tested to determine their preferences and what they’re physically capable of doing. Tony Mata is a skilled mower.

“Although we do not have a formal landscaping training program in place, through our AbilityOne program we do employ a total of eight adults with disabilities at two federal contract employment sites in the county [Brevard]. The purpose of the AbilityOne program is to give people with disabilities job skills that they can take with them. We have had these contracts for several years and, so far, the original employees are still working in their respective positions; thus no one has gone into the private sector yet,” Weiss says.

But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t.

Cesar Reyes, a grounds production worker trained by Chinook Enterprises, has served on the crew for the past four years, and also works one day a week for a local landscaping company. Before coming to the grounds crew at Chinook, he worked at the local mall.

“I like a group setting and working in a team. Over there, working by myself was really hard. With a team, we can work together and get everything done at the same time and have a friend relationship. It makes me feel good inside. It’s kind of like our working family,” Reyes says.

If he had to get a job on his own, Reyes says, “There’d be nobody to go to if I need help. Nobody to show me. I like working with these guys because they teach me how to do stuff. When I first worked here, they taught me how to mess with the weed wacker and the lawnmower and the tractor. Some jobs I worked with, they didn’t teach me how to do nothing. You needed to learn how to do that job before you started.”

Drew Beals and Cesar Reyes are among the seven adults with disabilities that help maintain the grounds at Skagit Valley College. Disabled adult workers have an astonishing 93.6 percent retention rate.

Reyes says he’s proud that he’s progressed far enough in his training that he could take a part-time job with a standard landscape company. “It makes me feel good because he doesn’t have to tell me how to mess with the lawnmower. I already know how to do it,” Reyes says.

Martin says part of the goal of the training program is to give disabled workers the skills needed to work for standard landscaping companies. “Many times, they want to go to work in another landscape company so we try to focus on what they’re going to need there,” Martin says.

John Bradford, with AbilityOne in the northwest regional office in Seattle, says that nonprofits affiliated with AbilityOne are hired as the contractor on jobs for the federal government. These nonprofits can subcontract out more difficult elements of the job to standard landscaping companies that they can’t do themselves.

“We’re connected to a lot of different landscape companies here,” Martin says. “We probably have five or six we refer jobs back and forth to. We contract sometimes that we can’t do as efficiently as they can,” such as blowing in bark in landscapes.

Standard landscaping companies can also hire the nonprofit to have access to their trained workforce. Bradford says, the nonprofits “can become subcontractors to standard companies.”

There is a rich pool of enthusiastic workers with disabilities that are available to work for landscaping firms around the country. The options are either to hire disabled workers and train them in-house, hire those trained through nonprofits like Chinook, or subcontract jobs directly with the nonprofit, thereby having access to the talent through a subcontractor arrangement.

Workers with disabilities “are a great untapped staffing resource,” says Lisa Knowles, job development coordinator at Chinook Enterprises.

“Everybody is looking for good, reliable workers. I think finding a source that has good training for those workers makes great business sense,” Martin says.

“There are so many different variations of disabilities. I think a lot of people who aren’t hiring people with disabilities think ‘This person is disabled. Period.’ They don’t go any further than that,” Greiner says. “I think that most of the people in the public don’t understand that there are so many different degrees of disability that can be worked with, and these people can be productive if they just give them a shot. And that’s what we do. We give them a shot.”

The author is a freelance writer and photographer based in Burlington, Wash.