By Phil Ammann
Neighborhood News Bureau
St. Petersburg—With curbside recycling beginning this month, St. Petersburg becomes a little more “green.” For one Midtown business, the new recycling program will make a difference in the lives of some special employees.
The Louise Graham Regeneration Center, located at 2301 Third Ave. S, provides employment for developmentally disabled adults. The Center is a non-profit organization supported by providing document-shredding services, selling products such as towels and bath tissue made from recycled paper.
As of September, the Center entered an agreement with Waste Services of Florida Inc. to provide support for St. Petersburg’s new curbside recycling program. The Center will handle shredding documents and recycling paper for Waste Services.
Curbside recycling in the city of St. Petersburg began October 1.
According to Al Soto, director of the Louise Graham Center, the Center is ready to take on the additional work through citywide curbside recycling. At various times, the Center would employ as many as 100 people, with a full time staff of six.
“Things have been a little slow right now,” Soto said. “With the contract with Waste Services, we expect it to get much busier.”
Ronald Sterns has been working at Louise Graham Center for seven months.
“I hope things get busier,” Sterns said. “My hours have been cut, and we don’t have the work.”
The business part of the Center currently provides services for companies such as Nielsen Inc. in Oldsmar and Progress Health South in Sarasota. The National Association for Information Destruction also gives the Center an AAA certification for shredding services. That rating allows the Center to destroy sensitive and confidential documents. One of their clients is the Internal Revenue Service.
The Center ships the shredded documents to a processing plant in Jacksonville, which processes the paper into consumer products. The Louise Graham Center website sells the finished products.
“It’s kind of ironic,” Soto said, smiling. “Paper goes from the IRS to toilet paper.”
The Center offers employees different levels of responsibility, depending on their abilities.
On the other side of the warehouse is a sorting room, filled with racks of cardboard boxes. In addition to document shredding, the Center also contracts to provide assembly of containers and packaging products for retail sale.
One of the projects at the Center is boxing toys sold through a local distributor. Another stack of boxes contains parts for iPod chargers waiting for packaging.
Soto has a formula by which he calculates how much each employee earns. The pay fluctuates by the size and type of project. Jobs such as sorting and warehouse work are determined by the level of employee ability. There is warehouse work such as loading and unloading of trucks. Higher functioning adults perform these jobs. Those who work in the warehouse are paid an hourly wage.
Most of the workers, who Soto calls “consumers,” make the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Soto gives each consumer a number of units. They are paid for each completed part.
“Every six months I do a ‘time study’ with each consumer,” Soto said. “It’s then I set goals for an amount of pieces for each person to finish.”
The Center actually houses two separate facilities. On one side, there is the warehouse and business center, managed by Soto. In another part of the large white building is an educational facility for the developmentally disabled.
Sharon Peterson teaches the General Education for Adults with Disabilities Class. Peterson said the class is “designed to assist students to develop skills necessary to successfully live and work in the community.” The Pinellas County School Board provides the class and offers it no charge. Faculty support of the Center is through the Lakewood Community School.
Peterson has spent the past 18 years as a teacher at the Center. She works with people of all ages, helping them master basic computer skills, providing physical activities and taking them on field trips. Although her students range from 22 to 74 years of age, Peterson said the education level of most is from preschool to about the second grade.
“Our goal is to help them move on to support themselves with employment outside the Center,” Peterson said. “But I have seen very few make it that far.”
In her time at the Center, Peterson saw “only about 10” students get jobs on the outside.
On Wednesdays, Peterson escorts students to the public library on a bus provided by the Center. Once a month students travel to Tyrone Mall and the St. Petersburg Pier.
“We usually go to the South Branch library,” Peterson said. “It’s much quieter there.”
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, two groups of students volunteer at the Lakewood High School cafeteria. They practice wiping down tables, ladling sauces into plastic containers and washing dishes.
“The students are learning basic sanitary practices,” Peterson adds. “It gives them a sense of accomplishment.”
In return, they get free lunches at the Lakewood cafeteria.
Providing education and employment to developmentally disabled adults can pose a challenge. One of the factors the Louise Graham Center uses in job placement is to what degree each individual can function. Another is how they are able to handle their pay. Even though most of her students have basic skills, Peterson said there are a few who can understand the value of money.
“They know money is used to buy things.” Peterson said. “They aren’t sure how much. We once had a girl that became very upset if she was not paid in $1 bills. When we would take her to the bank, she would insist on a tall stack of money. Only then she would be happy.”
Louise Graham, daughter of a former slave, founded the Center in 1949. Graham was a nurse at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg when she came across a disabled man abandoned by his family. The nursing staff had been treating the man as if he was helpless. Graham saw the best way to help was by teaching the man to be self-sufficient. She took the man home, set up rows of shelves in her garage and taught him to stock shelves.
Graham then helped him get a job at a local grocery store. Over time, her efforts grew to assist other developmentally disabled residents of St. Petersburg to become productive members of the community. Friends and volunteers later joined her cause. When Graham died in 1983, the Center was renamed in her honor.
Gloria Dandy has worked in the Center for more than 30 years. Dandy first worked with Graham and remembered her fondly.
“Ms. Graham was a beautiful woman,” Dandy said. “She had a real influence in the community, especially with arts and crafts. Very hands on.”