Scottsdale STARS champion workplace integration for those with special skills

Scottsdale resident Betsy Blankemeier is all smiles taking a break for a photo at the downtown Scottsdale STARS facility Wednesday, Nov. 18. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

Like millions of Americans, Scottsdale resident Betsy Blankemeier often gets up before the rise of the sun to head to work to help make ends meet for her family.

A humble woman with an infectious smile, Ms. Blankemeier carries the weight of responsibility to care for her aging father who is dealing with macular degeneration that is slowly causing loss of eye site.

The devastating health prognosis comes on the heels of the passing of Ms. Blankemeier’s mother.

“I told my mom on her death bed I would take care of dad,” she said Jan. 18. “My mom started a charity, a nonprofit, and I am working to keep that going too.”

The strife many Americans face of taking care of parents as they age is a burden many understand, but what separates Ms. Blankemeier from the daily struggles of most is she does it all with developmental and cognitive disabilities.

“I usually get up at 5 a.m., but right now I am sleeping until 7 a.m. but I am just getting over this cold,” she said. “I like to come to work. And, I like to make money. It’s better than staying home and watching movies.”

Ms. Blankemeier was a one-time participant but now employee of the Scottsdale Training and Rehabilitation Services where more than 200 participants are able to find their strengths in the workplace.

“I feel good because I have my friends here. My favorite job is wrapping the pallets,” she said pointing out former Executive Director and current Councilwoman Virginia Korte was a major catalyst for Ms. Blankemeier making the transition from participant to employee.

“If it wasn’t for her to make my dream come true I wouldn’t be here working. I am working toward getting a puppy so I can train it. I miss having a puppy around.”

STARS helps hundreds of people like Ms. Blankemeier find empowerment in the workplace and life itself.

A right for all to thrive

“Our mission is to provide programs with individuals with developmental and cognitive disabilities. We deal with a very specific population,” said STARS Executive Director Dave Henderson in a Jan. 17 phone interview.

“What we like to do is change through opportunity. This folks often have a lack of resources once they exit the educational system. Once they turn 21, if they haven’t already graduated they lose access to those opportunities.”

JP finishes the assembly of a solution-delivery device at STARS in downtown Scottsdale. He is paid per device completed. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

Following public school, families and individuals are often perplexed of where next steps will come. But that’s where STARS come into the picture, Mr. Henderson says.

“Unfortunately, a lot of them fall off the radar when they reach that point. For ongoing care and programs, they need help. That’s why for five days a week we have two locations where we serve a couple hundred of people.”

At two STARS locations in Scottsdale special need adults work nominal jobs many in America would scoff at, but those with special needs find great joy in accomplishing tasks and contributing to society through work.

Proponents there say it is an empowering thing to behold as those with special needs realize they can contribute too.

“For five days a week we have two locations where we serve a couple hundred people,” Mr. Henderson explains. “We do that through what we call day programs where we develop work and life skills. Things that you and I learned from an early age. A lot of these folks are still learning these types of skills.”

Mr. Henderson points out corporate partners like Cox Communications, Fry’s Food Stores and Honor Health provide opportunities for STARS participants to get out into the real world.

“We are fortunate enough to work with local business who provide work for our participants,” he said. “A big provider for us is Cox Communications. They get paid based on how many units they process.”

STARS, which was created in 1973, would not have been created if it weren’t for both landmark legislation emboldened in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the city of Scottsdale finding a way to fulfill that charge, Mr. Henderson points out.

“This social change came about from the Civil Rights Act,” he said noting that before those laws took effect little care or consideration where given to people with special needs.  “We were putting these folks in state institutions and in those days they would call them the mentally retarded. Much like every other disability, we need programs and services in the community to provide support for these individuals.”

What started in the early 1970s as a group of city of Scottsdale employees trying to fill the charge of the Civil Rights Act is now an entity serving hundreds of participants every day, Mr. Henderson explains.

A watershed moment?

STARS has inked a one-year contract with Aventura — a premier catering company to provide workforce for tasks that can be handled by folks with special needs.

“They are a premier catering company that contract with the Phoenix Convention Center to manage all of their food for all of the events held there,” Mr. Henderson explained. “Whether that is Comic-Con or the NBA All-Star Game all food services are handled by this company.”

Mr. Henderson says this contract with Aventura is a big deal because they have plans of hiring at least 10 STARS participants By Feb. 1

“It creates more opportunities for individuals with developmental disability to work in an integrated environment,” he said. “Our participants are trained to polish glassware and silverware. Some of this came out of the high rates of turnover this industry is seeing.”

Joyce Meed, director of staffing operations at Aventura, says the company is serious.

“Our agreement is a partnership with them; to train and to do on-the-job training for their participation and then the goal is when that training is complete we want to hire them as regular employees at Aventura,” she said in a Jan. 17 phone interview. “At this point they are paid minimum wage through STARS and then depending on what their job would be their pay may vary.”

Ms. Meed points out this type of effort is new to Aventura but explains she spent time working with adults with special needs in her previous career.

“This is something brand new to us,” she said. “My background was in special eduction. I had been looking for an organizations like this to partner with to our less labor intensive works, but work that still needs to be done.”

Mr. Meed says many with special needs are very similar to everyday people — even a person reading this article.

“Quite honestly, people with special needs are just like everybody else,” she said. “They want to come and do a job to their best ability. They are excited to work and they bring a certain flare to our work environment. They are excited to be here and are happy to be at work.”

When asked if overtime rules are cost of labor is playing a role in this partnership, Ms. Meed replied, “At this point cost of labor is not playing a role at all,” she said. “Our plan is to offer them a fair wage for fair work. “I think people need to know that people with special needs can always bring something to the table.”

Betsy Blankemeier proudly displays an award she won from the city of Scottsdale last year for being “employee of the year.” (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

Northeast Valley Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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