Nonprofits turn to federal contracts to help grow job opportunities


Jerry Maith, left, and Kenny Murphy, trained by Melwood, clean up for the Coast Guard. (Jeffrey MacMillan/FOR WASHINGTON POST)
May 8, 2011

The busy government market isn’t just attracting traditional contractors. Nonprofit organizations geared toward helping people with disabilities find employment are bidding for federal work as a way to offer more jobs and different kinds of positions.

Take Melwood, which has carved out a niche providing custodial services and landscaping work at dozens of government buildings. Now, the Upper Marlboro-based nonprofit is trying to broaden the kind of jobs it offers and also attract a larger number of veterans.

Key to this expansion is a new contract for up to five years at Fort Meade, the quickly expanding military base that is home to the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command. Melwood has won work managing the entire 5,400-acre facility, from landscaping to elevator maintenance to snow removal.

The organization won the contract under a program known as AbilityOne, a federal initiative meant to help provide employment on government contracts for people who are blind or have other significant disabilities.

The program mandates that 75 percent of the work performed under its contracts be done by people who meet those eligibility requirements, said George Selby, spokesman for the Committee for Purchase From People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled, which administers the AbilityOne program.

In 2010, about 47,000 people were employed through AbilityOne contracts.

Melwood already has 43 contracts through which it receives about $52 million annually, said Janice Frey-Angel, the organization’s president and chief executive. But most are for landscaping, such as at an Energy Department facility in Germantown, or for custodial work, such as at the New Executive Office Building. Many with disabilities today are seeking more varied kinds of tasks, Frey-Angel said.

“They want more choices,” she said.

Melwood hopes the work at Fort Meade, which will provide just more than 150 jobs, many of them trade jobs like electrical work, will attract more veterans. The organization wants to partner with other organizations and companies, particularly to complete some of the more technical functions associated with managing a facility.

Melwood also just started on a new contract with the Coast Guard to clean its Curtis Bay facility near Baltimore, including some of its ships.

AbilityOne too is seeking opportunities through which it can help people with disabilities find not just a job, but a long-term field, according to Selby.

At the Arc, an organization that promotes supports and services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, chief executive Peter Berns said more than 80 of the organization’s 710 chapters are vendors through the AbilityOne program.

“It is a very important source of employment for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” he said. “It does seem to provide . . . jobs that are good quality and stable employment in many communities.”

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