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Sheltered workshop is a step ahead of the rest of us

Sheltered workshop is a step ahead of the rest of us

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SHREWSBURY • A 10-foot evergreen trimmed with Christmas ornaments stands right inside the sliding glass doors at Canterbury Enterprises. Just beyond the tree, dozens of workers at long white folding tables select candy from crowded bins, packaging them into treats for children.

It’s December at the sheltered workshop, and right on schedule, marshmallow chews and licorice whips are getting tucked into shiny plastic eggs.

That’s right, eggs. Come spring, they will be snatched up by little hands at egg hunts and dug out of grass-filled Easter baskets.

“We make eggs in 30 styles,” said Charlie Fischer, Canterbury’s manager.

He consults a color-coded run sheet to keep track of the different egg iterations: speckled, glow-in-the-dark, dog-treat filled, eggs with stickers, eggs with one toy and one candy, eggs with two candies.

His workers finished stuffing 30,000 Christmas stockings last month, a minor job compared to their biggest project of the year. They started filling plastic eggs during the summer and will have packaged several million by Easter.

It’s a lot of eggs.

But Fischer is grateful for the business. The contract from American Carnival Mart started six years ago, just as he was losing jobs such as mass mailings to automation or overseas labor.

One of the biggest challenges in overseeing the nonprofit workshop, Fischer said, is finding the right work for his 77 employees, especially as the economy has changed. Their tasks are as varied as assembling Halloween goody bags, packaging lids for wine glasses and separating parts for Boy Scout derby cars.

About 7,500 people are employed at 92 sheltered workshops in Missouri; Canterbury, on Weil Avenue in Shrewsbury, is one of a dozen in the St. Louis region. It’s a little smaller than the others and its employees, in general, have more severe disabilities.

Workers earn a compensatory wage, usually between $2 and $4 an hour, based on their ability to perform in relation to a person without a disability. The discrepancy between that pay and the state minimum wage of $7.65 an hour has been a sticking point with disability rights advocates, who argue that people with disabilities should not make less than other workers.

It’s a sentiment that Fischer agrees with in theory. “I would be all for paying the minimum wage if the funding was there,” he said. The workshop’s $1 million annual budget comes from state and local funds, grants and contract work. Without an increase in subsidies, said Fischer, most workshops would be forced to shut down. And employees can lose their government benefits if they earn too much money.

Pride in the work

The money is important, of course, but it’s not the driving motivation for his workers, Fischer said. “These guys, they come in here for a reason. They take so much pride in their work. I always tell people, ‘Outsource your work to people who love their job.’”

Inside the warehouse, amid the faint hum of Christmas music, an employee is eager to show a visitor her process: Pull a pink egg from the package, pop a Tootsie Roll and some Smarties inside, snap the ends together, toss the egg into a box. Then it’s on to a row of yellow, then orange, teal and green. There are 500 eggs in a package; some workers can get through two or three packages a day. Others work more deliberately.

“You have to find work that fits your people. You want them to be happy,” Fischer said. “Everybody can do an egg.”

Jerry Maurer, 58, is one of Canterbury’s newest employees. He came on board in September — at the height of Christmas stocking preparations — as a veteran of two other workshops. He likes the homey feel. His two sisters work here, also.

But there is one drawback. Is he ever tempted to eat the candy? He lets out a belly laugh. “Sometimes,” he admits.

Next to Maurer, a man in a wheelchair plops an egg into a hollowed-out block of wood that’s duct-taped to the table. It’s a jury-rigged adaptive device thought up by Fischer’s father-in-law. The egg fits inside, allowing it to be opened, filled and closed using just one hand.

Ronnie Wren, 34, sits on the other side of Maurer. He has worked at Canterbury for five years. Cerebral palsy keeps him in a wheelchair and limits his manual dexterity.

“I love it here,” he said with a grin, while unbagging metal holders for soap-and-lotion sets, another workshop project. “But I am wanting to get competitive employment. It’s difficult due to my hand movement.”

Wren lives in Woodson Terrace and takes Call-A-Ride to get to work. Canterbury draws from a broader area than many workshops because it can accommodate workers who have a wide range of needs and abilities.

Some of Canterbury’s employees do go on to other kinds of jobs. “We can be a steppingstone,” Fischer said. Most of his workers are referred to him from Vocational Rehabilitation Services. A few come straight out of Special School District.

Fischer said he could accommodate a few dozen more employees but doesn’t have enough supervisors. Right now, there are 13. Barb Mayer-Douglas is the longest-tenured. She came on as a training coordinator 30 years ago, just three years after Canterbury was founded by the Cerebral Palsy Foundation.

“When it opened, it was for people with more physical challenges,” Mayer-Douglas said. “The biggest change since I’ve been here is the people we serve. There are more people on the autism spectrum.

“But the rewards are the same — seeing success, seeing someone accomplish their goals.”

The big goal, for the next couple months, is the Easter eggs. Once they’re finished? It’s on to Easter baskets.

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