A headline in today's Virginia Weekly, which was printed in advance, incorrectly describes participants in Fairfax County's Transitional Job Training Program. The trainees are mentally handicapped, not mentally ill.
Terry Russell, 24, was stacking heavy plates into the basket of the Days Inn restaurant dishwasher with the self assurance of a pro as Kim Sutherland stood by watching with obvious pride.
After all, for Russell, who had been institutionalized for most of his life as severely mentally handicapped and considered incapable of ever holding a real job, it was an accomplishment.
"When you see them in a work environment, it's hard to believe they are labeled severely mentally retarded," said Sutherland, director of a unique Fairfax County job training program designed to get Russell and others equally severely handicapped into the job marketplace. "When they're doing the same work as anyone else, as well as anyone else, they become just like anyone else. That's the key."
Faifax County's Transitional Job Training program is training Russell and a dozen other severely mentally handicapped residents for full-time jobs. It started only last August by the non-profit Mt. Vernon Lee Enterprises, a rehabilitation center for the multihandicapped.
The nine- to 10-month training program costs about $600 a month per trainee and is paid for by a combination of county and federal funds.
Sutherland said the program was started because federal and state spending cuts have made it too costly to keep the severely handicapped in sheltered programs for life.
"The cuts made us look for new alternatives," she said. "It's costly to train [the handicapped] but, hopefully, it will work out better than keeping them in long-term sheltered programs."
So far, two clients have left the training program and been placed in private sector jobs, one as a dishwasher at a nursing home in Alexandria and another busing tables at a Fairfax restaurant.
Currently, Russell and his fellow trainees are working at the Days Inn Restaurant and laundry room and in the Alexandria Hospital laundry room. They bus tables, wash dishes, and fold sheets and towels under supervision. They split the salary and chores of the three jobs.
Like the two clients who have left the program, they hope to get their own jobs, earn their own wages and be under the supervision of a regular boss rather than special program trainers.
Sutherland said the successful program is a boost to most clients and their families, who thought they would never be able to earn a day's wage.
"Getting them jobs is a logical step, considering the cutbacks in the handicap programs," said Sutherland, hired last year to run the new program.
Mt. Vernon Lee Director Joseph Hemelings agrees, adding that the program is better for the clients as well as the state.
"However beautiful a center is, it's still a sheltered program. And deviants among deviants stay deviants," he said. "To put them in a normal world gives them a future. They know there is a light at the end of the tunnel. They see they can be in the real world, not just one more institution, one more sheltered program."
In the Days Inn laundry, Elizabeth Henry, 23, stopped folding sheets for a moment to explain her job. "I go up and down stairs a lot," she told a visitor, slurring her words but adding a wry grin.When asked if he liked her job, the grin spread and she nodded vigorously.
Clients are referred to the program, for which there is a waiting list, by the Fairfax County extension office. Sutherland said the problem had not been with the clients, but with the availability of jobs.
"Everyone is wary at first, and understandably so," she said.
But Days Inn Manager Charles Prather, who ran a group house for the mentally handicapped in Kansas City, said he had never regretted his decision to turn over job positions to the training program and pay them fair market wages.
"They work harder than anyone because they want to work so badly," he said.
Prather said he tells his regular workers to treat the mentally retarded trainees like anyone else, and he, too, stands by his edict. When the trainees took an unauthorized extended lunch hour one day he chewed them out royally.
"They've never tried that again," said Sutherland. "The Days Inn is a wonderful environment because they are treated normally."
Getting real jobs for the trainees is as difficult as finding training centers, she said. Menial jobs are scarce and competition is tough, with high school students and immigrants vying for the same spots.
"Our best argument is dependability," said Sutherland. "We go after the jobs with high turnover because our workers are going to stay there forever, not move up into something higher-paying or more challenging."
To her trainees, she said, "The small jobs others might look down on are their ultimate goal in life."