Sometimes good things just happen by accident. A chance encounter with a woman I had never met turned out to be a real education for me. I was just leaving the library recently when someone called my name. She had recognized me from my mug shot in this column and wanted to let me know that she is a loyal reader. In the course of the conversation, she mentioned that she worked at Elcam and told me about some of the great work that was going on there. I got some contact information and followed up with what turned out to be a very informative interview with administrative personnel and Jody, my new acquaintance from the library.

I had heard of Elcam, Inc. in St. Marys, and I knew that they worked with individuals who have intellectual, physical, or emotional disabilities, but that was the extent of what I knew. What I didn’t know was how Elcam has evolved since its beginning in 1972. Individuals with disabilities were isolated from the community at that time, and worked and socialized mainly with others also having disabilities.

The goal now is to integrate people with disabilities into the community, while teaching them the social skills necessary to do that. They go to grocery stores, McDonald’s, schools, libraries, hospitals, businesses and various other places, all while learning what’s required of employees who work at each place. They learn communication, decision making, being dependable and getting along with others, so that eventually, with the help of their job coach, many will find a suitable job in the community. The job coach, Jody, continues to make sure that these new employees show up for work on time, every day, ready to do their job to the best of their ability. And the best part is, employers know that they will be getting people who can be depended upon, evidenced by the fact that more and more local employers are happy to welcome Elcam-sponsored employees. New hires continue to meet with the job coach until gradually they are able to work independently.

It’s clear that the job coach is essential, and I’m thinking that a lot more people could use one! Employers seem to have a difficult time filling positions with dependable people who actually want to work. What I’ve heard from more than a few employers is that a strong work ethic is a rare trait not found in many new workers these days.

To continue toward the goal of integrating individuals with disabilities into the community, the Elcam Community Center opened in 2003. There, individuals can continue learning skills and socializing while participating in activities that include arts and crafts, music, computer education, sports and games, health and wellness, gardening, microwave cooking, community activities such as bowling, and many other things. The goal is to bring each individual to his/her full potential while they are being integrated into the community.

I believe that the key to Elcam’s success is due in large part to the group of patient, caring employees such as Jody and the administrators I met with who are responsible for day to day operations. I was certainly impressed by the passion and dedication shown by Jody. She truly has found her calling, maybe a bit later in life than most people, but she humbly credits Elcam instead of herself for the successes they’ve seen. Administrators maintain contact with area businesses and also ensure that Elcam is in compliance with state and local laws, as they oversee all facets of the business.

For the most part, the times are gone when families would keep a mentally challenged child at home and away from other people and interactions, but Jody has had to deal with a situation of that nature that had been going on for a long time. When the parent caregiver of an older adult with disabilities passed away not too long ago, she worked patiently with the person for hours to give her enough confidence to first leave her house and then walk into a grocery store with her so they could buy milk. It was the first time the older woman had ever ventured outside of the house she had shared with her mother. Patience like that is rare and remarkable, and I complimented Jody again for the ways she helps make Elcam the community asset that it is.

When Elcam started in 1972, it specialized in the manufacturing, machining, assembly, inspection and packaging of metal, plastic, and rubber parts for industrial customers. Any profits from the business were reinvested into the expansion of social services. Individuals with disabilities who worked as assemblers, inspectors or packers were often paid sub-minimum wages. This manufacturing portion of Elcam is currently in the process of being phased out entirely, and other ways of generating income that can be reinvested back into the business have been started. A few years ago, a Step Ahead Child Care Center opened to the public, staffed by qualified care givers and filling another need in the community. It has both indoor and outdoor play areas and is open to children ages 6 weeks to 12 years old.

I went into the library that day only to pay the fine for my overdue books, and a chance meeting with Jody led to a lot more! So many good people quietly go about making a positive impact on the lives of others in our community every day, and I now consider myself lucky enough to have met some of them.

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