Unique Partnerships

by Melissa Brunner

It’s no secret Topekans are a giving sort. The Corporation for National and Community Service reports nearly a third of Topekans volunteered their time in 2011, ranking 23rd among the nation’s midsized cities.

In addition to time, there’s money. Data compiled by the Chronicle of Philanthropy shows people in Topeka gave a median 4.3 percent of their income, or an average of $2,307, to charity in 2011. That added up to $69,530,705 given to organizations dedicated to serving the community’s needs.

Corporate contributions regularly make headlines, with many companies also supporting employees by matching personal contributions or encouraging volunteer time. But a few companies have forged
unique partnerships that go beyond simply writing a check.

Holiday Inn Express & TARC

Patrick Ice admits he didn’t know how to clean his apartment, couldn’t even make a bed. But he also wanted to live independently, something his level of attention deficit disorder and Asperger’s Syndrome made it difficult to do.

Today, you’ll find him working with a team to ensure rooms at the Holiday Inn Express in Topeka are sparkling for guests, right down to the wrinkle-free bed covers. Patrick landed the job through TARC.

Linda Dunn is the job coach for a team of five TARC clients, all with varying levels of disability. She makes sure they’re performing their duties correctly and assists in making modifications, if necessary, so the team members can carry out their tasks.

“One person can’t remember because of his disability, so we make a list with pictures so he knows what to do,” Dunn said.

Keeping It Real

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The tasks aren’t busy work. They are a real, paying job. Holiday Inn Express, part of Parrish Hotel Corporation, entered into the partnership with TARC about four years ago.

“They are like another staff member,” said Bill Michaud, the hotel’s interim general manager. “They show up. They’re excited to be here. They do their work. They really supplement the team.”

The TARC team cleans 14 rooms every day, just as one of the staff’s regular housekeepers would. They change the bed linens, clean the bathrooms, vacuum; all of the regular housekeeping tasks. Michaud says their work is held to—and meets— the company’s standards. Among the benefits for the hotel, Michaud says, is having a team that functions as one worker, “they’re an employee who never misses a day,” because others can cover if one of them has a sick day. Plus, there’s the intangible of helping the community.

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“It’s the ability to partner with TARC and offer a service to them just as much as they’re offering a service to us,” Michaud said.

Enhancing the Workforce

The team at Holiday Inn Express is among 26 TARC clients who work at job sites around the community. Hill’s, Tailgater’s Sports Pub and Grill, the 190th Air Refueling Wing and the Army National Guard also hire TARC teams. In addition, more than 100 other TARC clients work through TARC industries, doing various tasks for community businesses.

Assignments range from folding mailers for Kansas Commercial Real Estate to threading strings into laundry bags for Ameripride.

Because the TARC clients are doing real work for real businesses, they get a real paycheck. Smith says the amount may be small, but it’s a huge plus for the clients. Many live independently and receive assistance solely for the basics of food, shelter and clothing. A paycheck allows them a few extras.

“They get to go out and buy something for themselves,” Smith said. “If they didn’t have jobs, they wouldn’t be able to do that.”

But none of it would be possible without businesses willing to make room on their staff for the TARC team. Work ethic aside, Michaud says it’s a partnership that gives a bit of personal perspective, too.

“You recognize the struggles (some of the workers have) had and it gives you an appreciation for all you have in your everyday life,” he said. “It makes your problems seem not as significant when you see them show up every day with a great attitude and living life.”

GreatLife & YWCA

The YWCA of Topeka found itself at a crossroads. The country was in recession, donations and grants harder to obtain, and the organization’s eight programs were stretched thin as they tried to stay afloat. The YW’s board of directors embarked on a strategic planning effort to right the ship, but one area stared back at them in bright red from the balance sheet—the fitness center. The YW fitness center that operated from the lower level of their building at SW 12th and Van Buren had been hemorrhaging money; as much as $100,000 per year for a decade.

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“Everybody loved the fitness center, but it needed to be run by someone who knew the business,” CEO Joyce Martin said. “We had some really tough decisions. Do we want to have a fitness facility?”

About this same time, GreatLife Golf and Fitness, owned by Rick and Linda Farrant, was adding fitness centers to their golf course operations, and had grown to more than a dozen locations. They heard the YW might be open to a change and started what Rick described as a “superficial dialogue.”

Five months and a lot of paperwork later, the YW and GreatLife announced that they were joining forces on January 1, 2012.

“They have enough compassion and understanding of community needs that I don’t think a partnership with another for-profit entity would have worked,” Martin said. “Not everyone would accept that, for the people who’d been here 30 years, this was their home.”

Establishing a Business Relationship

But make no mistake—this is a business. GreatLife and the YW formed a legal LLC. The Farrants, representing GreatLife, and two representatives for the YW make all the decisions affecting the LLC.

“We must assure the business side of the YW stays separate from the nonprofit,” Martin said.

Rick Farrant said it was also important for GreatLife to operate as a true business partner with the YW. “If they said simply lease the space, we’d have said no,” Farrant said. “In the long run, for the relationship to flourish, we get paid to manage it and they get paid rent.”

Making a Change

The first order of business was the facility itself. Linda Farrant said, structurally, it was “awesome,” but there were lots of maintenance issues. GreatLife updated equipment and made repairs to other areas. Membership levels were also restructured, which actually resulted in savings for most members.

While all admit there were some growing pains as members adjusted to new class schedules, instructor arrangements and various procedural changes, a year later, they report very few members left and they’re starting to see an upswing.

Maintaining Its Flavor

“In normal fitness centers, you see people mainly 50 and younger,” Linda Farrant said. “Here, you see people of all ages but also a higher concentration of retired people. You’ll ask, ‘How old are you?’ and they’ll say 86, but look 60. That’s amazing and inspiring.”

Moving Forward

Both sides are optimistic about the future of the partnership. Martin says the YW is glad it didn’t have to abandon meeting the need for a fitness center downtown that could complement its mission. The Farrants are glad they could support the mission, foster a positive atmosphere and, in the big picture, turn a profit, too.

“It just has a vibe about it,” Rick Farrant said of the location. “People are happy to be here.”

Kid Stuff & Capper

On the surface, it appears like any other well-oiled operation. On one side of the room, Travis is building boxes, one hand deftly holding the ends while the other streams out a straight line of tape to hold it all together. At a table a few feet away, Tina and Andrew are counting stickers into stacks of 20. The stacks given to Frank at another table nearby who pairs them with a stack of activity booklets, puts them into one of Travis’ boxes, and holds the ends for Rocky to tape shut. They slide the box across the table to Christy, who peels off a label and positions it nice and straight on the side of the box, making it ready to ship. In the next room, Jeremy takes old boxes and breaks them down to be recycled.

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The scene unfolds each day at the Easter Seals Capper Foundation Adult Day Services Business Support Center.

The employees, despite evident disabilities, are doing real work for Kid Stuff Marketing, a Topekabased company with clients on every continent.

Kid Stuff works with restaurants and other entities to develop and provide what are best described as kids’ meal components. When the toys, activity books, stickers, cups, sacks and other various items arrive, someone needs to count, combine and package those items for a client’s particular order.

Mark Larson, Kid Stuff operations manager, calls it a great relationship.

“We really don’t need to have fulltime staff here to do this kind of work,” Larson said. “It’s convenient for us to have them do work on a just-in-time basis. Without a lot of notification, they’re able to get these fulfillment projects for us done.”

“Plus,” he adds, “They do a really good job.”

Completing Needed Services Kathy Stiffler, Capper’s vice president for Adult Day Services, says the work is perfectly suited to the varying levels of ability their clients have.

“Who else is going to pull crayons out of a box and replace the two blue ones with a yellow and a green?” she said. “Our position in the middle helps make it all affordable for the company.”

The program, which came to Capper in January 2012 through a merger with Individual Support Systems, Inc., currently serves 55 adult clients. In addition to Kid Stuff, they also do work such as compiling informational packets, producing newsletters or printing posters for groups like Kansas Bankers Surety, National Trailer Manufacturers, Genstler Eye Center, Washburn University’s School of Nursing and the state’s Kansas Works program. Stiffler says they’ve also attracted work from companies who have an unusual one-time need. For example, Hormel hired them to remove expired coupons from thousands of otherwise useable packages.

Building Abilities

The Capper clients work under direct supervision. Cissy Johnson oversees the mailing center, where the Kid Stuff work is done. She says she lets them try any aspect of a task they’d like so they can test their capabilities.

“I don’t try to label them or look at them as a person with a disability,” she said. “It makes them feel good that they can work and hold a job of their own.”

The joy is obvious as workers eagerly seek out visitors to explain their task, with broad smiles on their faces.

“I like working,” Frank says as he places more activity booklets into a box. “I don’t want to sit down too much.”

Making a Win-Win

With businesses supporting the program, the program can support the clients. Stiffler says it’s a win for the business in getting an affordable service and a win for the community as a whole, since the clients receive paychecks which make them less reliant on government and other assistance programs. Plus, she says, there’s the intangible value of selfworth the clients derive from making a contribution through their work and being able to interact with others.

“Just because they have a disability doesn’t mean they’re not capable of working anywhere,” Stiffler said.

“They’re in this work environment because they have issues that could make it difficult for them to be successful in another environment. This is an environment tolerant of what makes them who they are.”

Who they are to Kid Stuff— partners in what Larson describes as a “symbiotic relationship.”

“We’re able to provide ongoing activity, work and revenue, and we benefit also,” he said. “I think it’s a great environment and a great situation. I think it’s great Topeka can support something like that.”