Cover Story

Be less than you can be

"Be less than you can be" Continued...

Issue: "Reaping a whirlwind," Aug. 24, 2013

But if the number of less-needy recipients grows, at some point that help will stop or decrease—or we’ll raise taxes so high, or inflate our currency, that the economy will be devastated. In 2016, Congress probably will redirect money from the broader Social Security program, because many politicians want to be seen as compassionate helpers of the beaten-down, especially if they can do it with someone else’s money. But that just brings the whole Social Security structure closer to collapse.

We could take three steps toward a better way. 

First, recognize that tinkering won’t work. Near the 20th century’s end, a lavish disability program was flooding Holland’s governmental budgets: Dutch politicians lowered benefit levels, tightened eligibility rules, and in other ways tried to reform their program at the margins. Nothing worked until the Netherlands stopped having government run everything and started using private-sector insurance firms to provide case management of rehabilitation. 

Second, realize that only a “work-first strategy” works. Now, SSI and SSDI offer support only after individuals have spent a long time showing they cannot work. It would be far better to erase that firm dividing line between the able and the disabled, and to understand that almost everyone can do something. Washington should no longer encourage state officials to make SSI “the new welfare,” and should instead encourage through block grants state-by-state, work-oriented innovation.

Third, stress what individuals can do with family support. Shortly before ADA’s passage, U.S. News quoted Iowa mom Sylvia Piper saying she had saved taxpayers $4.8 million by ignoring physicians who urged her to institutionalize her son, Dan, who had Down syndrome. Instead, she sent him to public school and encouraged him to get a job when he turned 18. U.S. News reported that Dan saved $800 from his pay as a drugstore stockroom worker, purchased with his earned money a gray bedroom rug, and slept on it the night it arrived: Dan “grew when faced with a challenge.”

In 2002, at age 31, Piper died after a car hit him—and a decade later, 108 members of the “Remembering Dan Piper” group on Facebook were still writing and reading comments about him: “Dan loved life and didn’t seem intimidated by anything. … Dan gave me drive … he wanted to be treated like everyone else. … his integrity and his motivation showed me how to be a better person.” The National Down Syndrome Society conference every year gives out an award in his name.

—with research by WORLD intern Andrew Branch

Chopping up a living

Disabled workers at Wildflour Bakery find purpose and a paycheck in the kitchen

By Edward Lee Pitts

Jessica Dempsey
Edward Lee Pitts
Jessica Dempsey

CHANTILLY, Va.—On a recent morning when Brian Glen rolls a cart filled with lunch items ready for delivery, he almost bumps into a visitor. “Excuse me,” Glen says, smiling. “It’s a nice day we are having, isn’t it?”

Glen, 24, has spent the last two years working at Wildflour, a deli, bakery, and catering business 30 miles outside of Washington in Chantilly, Va. Glen is one of 35 employees with intellectual disabilities at this nonprofit that began in 1994. Five days a week these workers perform a variety of tasks for a paycheck. And they seem to love every minute of it.

“It’s kind of like being at Camelot,” says Glen. “I have my brothers and sisters here.”

Inside Wildflour’s 5,000-square-foot kitchen, a half dozen workers with cognitive disabilities stand at steel workstations dicing and slicing tomatoes, jalapeños, cheese balls, and red peppers. Jonathan Chester McCambly’s task today is cutting onions. He is meticulous about getting them the right shape before scooping them into a plastic container.

“I will let you in on a little family secret,” says McCambly, 29. “Cooking and being a chef is a family legacy. I’m trying to make a name for myself.”

Alberto Figueiredo Sangiorgio, Wildflour’s general manager, spends months teaching a new worker how to use a knife. Often he lets them cut just one pepper a day until they get it right. He tells his employees not to rush and to make every cut beautiful.

“Even if you don’t see it on the surface, they need that challenge,” says Sangiorgio, whose four decades as a chef sent him to 15 countries. “We are not here to babysit. They come here to work.”

Workers are paid $7.25 an hour and earn sick leave, vacation, and profit-sharing. The office hallway is lined with so many framed employee-of-the-month certificates that space is running out.

“Some of the guys, their knife skills are better than prep cooks I’ve had in the past,” says Paul Miller, a Wildflour chef with 30 years of cooking experience. ”In a regular work environment I think some people look for reasons not to go to work. These guys love coming here.”

In a room near the kitchen, workers use cookie cutters to press dough into bonelike shapes before placing them onto sheets for baking. Others pack cooked dog biscuits into plastic containers that are shipped to grocery stores. Jessica Dempsey, 24, is taught to pack the biscuits so tightly they make no sound when someone shakes the package.

Dempsey says work is a “really cool idea.” Her job, she says, helps her focus on her future and teaches her how to do new things. She likes impressing her supervisors by showing them how hard she works.

“This is my dream job,” Dempsey says. “Catering is part of my life.”

Many of the workers with disabilities enjoy talking about what they are saving their paycheck for. McCambly wants to go on a cruise this December with his sister. He’d also like to get his own apartment. Caitlin Corrigan, 24, who helps make chicken and tuna salad, just bought her dad golf tees for his birthday.

Sangiorgio has his employees set aside a small portion out of their paychecks every month. At the end of the year they take those savings and buy presents for patients at a local children’s hospital.

Wildflour’s model works. The business is experiencing its biggest year so far: Twenty catering orders were pending during the last week of July. Last year Sangiorgio opened up another deli at a nearby office complex and plans to expand to 50 employees with developmental disabilities by the end of the summer. He has a waiting list of parents wanting to get their children a job.

Sally Dempsey, Jessica’s mother, says her daughter has grown more independent and thoughtful. She does her own laundry, cooks pasta dishes for her family, and took her mother out for sushi on her birthday.

“In past years she would have struggled getting up and been in a foul humor,” her mother says. “But she said they are counting on her being here. She said it is her responsibility.”

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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