Columbus was featured in the Deseret News on April 19th, 2015. See the story below or view the story on the Deseret News website.
SALT LAKE CITY — Cindy Bittle sits in front of a conveyor belt as paper passes in front of her.
Her hands sift through the pages, picking out the occasional yellow page.
“I work here for 10 years,” Bittle said. “We’re sorting papers, taking all the colors off of it.”
The white paper will be shredded, bound and sold to be recycled into office paper. It is Bittle’s job to ensure as much as possible that the bales only contain white paper.
She is just one of many who work at Columbus Community Center sorting and shredding paper for Columbus Secure Document Solutions. The center, which began in 1968, is a full-service provider for people who have physical and mental disabilities.
“Over the years that I’ve been here I’ve really seen people grow to their full potential and I’ve seen them really just blossom as human beings,” Stephanie Mackay said.
Mackay, director of development for Columbus, said the company serves 450 people in three areas — residential services, training and employment and day activities with respite care.
Bittle said she likes her job because she can help her boss, and because of the friends she’s made.
“I got lots more friends, too,” she said.
And she loves getting her paycheck.
“I get a paycheck and I can get what I want,” Bittle said.
That is often a new game for her Nintendo DS, anything Star Wars, new coloring books and colored pencils.
“Sometimes when I get a paycheck, I take my family out to dinner,” she said. “I’m happy because I can do that for my mom and dad and my brother.”
It’s one way these employees feel dignified through their work, Mackay said.
“We all identify, build our identity around the work that we do,” she said. “These are people who face a 65 percent unemployment and they don’t get an opportunity necessarily to find jobs.”
Their paychecks are as important to them as anybody who gets a paycheck, Mackay said.
“They become consumers, they’re spending their money in the community. They can take mom and dad out to lunch or to dinner. They can save their money and buy brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews Christmas presents,” she said.
In fact, Jeff Watts has special plans for the money he’s saved working Monday through Friday.
“I think I worked here around 2003 until this year,” he said.
Most of the time he shreds in the shredding room, but Watts also sorts paper and helps with the shredding truck.
“I think my favorite one is shredding, definitely,” Watts said.
He keeps his money in a safe place. Usually that’s the bank.
“A safe place from anything,” he said. “I love my money very much.”
Watts said he usually spends his money on vacations. And he’s been saving a lot so he can go to his “favorite happy place.”
“It feels good that I get, well, lots of money. I’m going to Disneyland,” Watts said. “Actually in May, so it’s a birthday surprise.”
Mackay said there’s no such thing as a bad day of work at Columbus.
“There are folks that are just fully integrated into the community and really having fun,” she said.
Mackay said Columbus serves 275 people a year in community based employment through the Supported Employment program.
“We work with local business partners to really create job opportunities, to support the employers and the clients that we serve and to make sure that it’s a win-win for everybody,” Mackay said.
For many of these employees, Mackay said, training, job support and transportation are their biggest obstacles.
“Individuals with disabilities have a 65 to a 90 percent unemployment rate, depending on the level of disability,” she said.
Each day, they work to get 450 people to and from their programs or jobs, or supporting families to transport them.
The Day Activity Program started 12 years ago as a retirement program, Mackay said.
“We had enough people who had been here from the beginning that they had been working 20 or 30 years and they were ready to retire,” she said.
The day activity also provides respite care.
“So they come and it’s the fun place,” Mackay said. “They play bingo, they go out on field trips. We keep the dollar stores in business because they’ll go out and go on a shopping spree at the dollar store.”
Columbus employees work in one of six business lines. One is the Columbus Secure Document Solutions, which employs 50-80 people.
“We started a secure document shredding business about 12 years ago, and it was identified as a great opportunity to employ a lot of people with severe disabilities,” Mackay said. “It’s our largest business unit.”
It’s a great model, she said, because they offer services for businesses in the community, and it generates revenue for the center to pay the wages of all the employees.
“So everybody here gets a paycheck,” she said. “Payday is the most fun day around here.”
Mackay said the center is a message of hope and relief for those in the community who have a family member or loved one with a disability.
“It’s a very frustrating experience, and I do want people to know that there are resources out there,” she said. “I would invite people to come visit the columbusserves.org website so they can kind of get a feel for it and know that there really is some support and hope out there for families who are really searching for some solutions.”