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Working adults with disabilities

Ashley Henry has worked at FSC Lighting for almost four years. She arrives to the Rancho Cucamonga warehouse with the rest of her teammates and gets to work—testing, cleaning, and assembling lighting, and sometimes loading and unloading the truck.

When asked about how she likes the job, she doesn’t hesitate. “Really good,” she says. “No problems around here.”

Ms. Henry is one of over half a dozen special-needs adults who work at FSC Lighting, in partnership with Anthesis. The Montclair-based nonprofit, formerly known as the Pomona Valley Workshop, works with local companies and disabled people to secure jobs in an effort to make them self-sufficient and to boost morale.

In the words of Anthesis CEO Mitch Gariador, the group’s mission is, “trying to get them back in to their highest potential.” Anthesis has worked with employers as diverse as the East Valley Water District and the Montclair Police Department, Mr. Gariador said. Each worker, or “consumer” in the Anthesis’ parlance, is paid minimum wage or higher and is an employee of Anthesis.

FSC President John Watkins has been employing workers from Anthesis for almost four years, and has no regrets.

“Every one of them is productive,” he said. “Every one of them out-produces any temporary employee I’ve ever hired.”

Currently about 28 percent of Mr. Watkins total workforce—or eight people—are from Anthesis. In the future, he hopes to increase his Anthesis workforce to 12 employees. Just like any worker, their tasks are specialized to their strengths; some are doing heavy lifting, while others are packaging and testing.

It’s all an effort, Mr. Watkins says, to make an often-unemployed and forgotten group of people more self-reliant and productive. Around 75 percent of adults on the autism spectrum are unemployed, he said, which represents a sector of the workforce that is untapped and full of potential, if you provide the right support.

“Some people are going to need more support, some people are not capable of doing as much as other people, but a lot of these folks are capable of doing a hell of a lot,” he said. “So we’re trying to find those individuals and help them build up their skill sets so they become the least reliant on social services.”

Now, he is giving back to the group that helped him. Together with FSC Marketing Director Alejandra Romero, Mr. Watkins raised money for a van to drive participants from their homes to work. Anthesis’ consumers live in Claremont, Pomona, La Verne and Montclair.

The van Anthesis now owns is in bad shape, and Mr. Watkins—who lives in Claremont with his wife Mara and their two daughters, Gabi and Aleks—held a fundraiser at Union on Yale on Monday to raise money to buy a new one.

Patrons at the Hawaiian-themed fundraiser were given the opportunity to bid on different parts of the van, such as the steering wheel or seats, in an effort to drum up as much money as possible. At press time, counting outside donations as well as those made at Monday’s fundraiser, Mr. Watkins estimates upwards of $60,000 has been raised—enough for a new van and then some.

Mr. Watkins heard about Anthesis through Andrew Behnke, the general manager of the Claremont DoubleTree Hotel. What was initially an innocent round of golf turned into more of a pitch about the benefits of groups like Anthesis. Mr. Watkins saw it as opportunity to give back to the community.

“I went and met with [Mr. Behnke] the following day, and within a month we had our first team in,” Mr. Watkins said.

Mr. Behnke has been working with Anthesis since 2008, using special needs workers for a variety of jobs around the hotel. He has also served on their board of directors three times.

One Anthesis consumer has now become a full-time employee of the DoubleTree. That employee, Mr. Behnke notes, won team member of the year by a “landslide vote.”

“If I could have a hotel full of employees like that, it would be awesome,” he said. “It would be like a utopia.”

But Mr. Watkins’ experiences with individuals with special needs goes back even further, when he became childhood friends with Kevin, a boy with autism who lived on his block.

“I just grew up with Kevin around, so as far as I knew, Kevin is just another person, he’s different,” he said. “The concept of doing something in this category was nothing that made me scared.”

When going out for a job, the Anthesis employees are separated into groups of two or three people called “enclaves,” with one job coach to oversee the consumers, manage the breaks and to make sure everything runs smoothly.

Rita Ramirez has been a job coach for Anthesis for the past five years, and was on hand at FSC to oversee production.

It’s not just a job for Ms. Ramirez, who has a 28-year-old son with disabilities. “You have to have compassion,” she said. “You have to learn to walk at their pace. Everybody deserves a chance to do their best.”

While the consumers are employees of Anthesis, companies like FSC Lighting see them as part of the cultural fabric of their workforce. Mr. Watkins notes that they work well with other full-time employees at FSC.

“Every single day of my working life I go into my building and I feel lucky, and every day I get to interact with someone who is truly unique and cool,” he said.

To learn more about employment or for volunteering opportunities, visit anthesis.us.

—Matthew Bramlett

news@claremont-courier.com

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