“I was in a low place when I came here initially,” says Mark Gorden. He’s sitting in an upstairs office of the Birmingham-based nonprofit Workshops, Inc., wearing a powder-blue work shirt and a personalized nametag that identifies him as a “Production Worker.”
“I had struggled with addiction problems for many years of my life,” Gorden continues. “I was a functioning alcoholic for many years of my life. A chain of events led me here. I had to have some major surgery [because] I was in a pretty major accident.” Gorden, originally from Montgomery, found himself living at the Jimmie Hale Mission so that he could remain in Birmingham and make it to his medical appointments.
“I was feeling bad about myself,” he says. “I didn’t know what the future had for me. I didn’t know what the purpose of me still being alive was.”
This all happened, Gorden says, roughly a year ago. Then, about six months later, the Jimmie Hale Mission put him in contact with Workshops, an organization dedicated to helping people with disabilities find work and develop employable skills. Now, Gorden works in the organization’s media and print department — folding napkins for food service company Aramark and assembling packages for check-printing company Main Street, among other things — and he quietly remarks that his experience with Workshops has been transformative.
“This place has helped me socially,” he says. “It’s helped me spiritually, believe it or not. … By working here, I’ve come to realize that the purpose of me being here is to serve other people, to be an example to those around me, to strive to have that high degree of excellence that everyone here has. It’s not about myself; it’s not about personal gratification. It’s about being of assistance to others and trying to raise others up in some way.”
“The Oldest Nonprofit in Birmingham You’ve Never Heard Of”
There’s a mantra that you’ll hear repeated by Workshops employees — one that serves as both a point of pride and the embodiment of a sort of underdog mentality: “We’re the oldest nonprofit in Birmingham you’ve never heard of.”
Susan Crow, who has been the organization’s executive director since 2010, says that slogan “isn’t exactly our dream tagline, but it’s a reality. We’ve been here for a long time doing really great work.”
Workshops was founded in 1900 by “a group of Birmingham citizens … for the rehabilitation of people with disabilities, especially those with vision impairments,” the organization’s website states. (The focus on vision impairments has waned over the past century.) At first, the organization created products for sale, such as brooms, mops, bedsheets, and pajamas. Eventually, though, the organization’s model shifted to primarily focus on jobs outsourced by other companies — Aramark and Main Street, for example.
But perhaps the bigger focus for Workshops, Crow says, is in helping people with disabilities “find a way to make a living … [to] achieve his or her highest vocational potential.” Though Workshops employs about 65 people as part of what Crow describes as “our longer-term workforce,” the organization’s focus is to prepare people with disabilities to find jobs outside of Workshops.
“For some people — we hope for most people we serve — they’ll be with us for a couple of years, until they get stable, until they have an employment history, whatever it is that they need to move on,” Crow says. “In all likelihood, they just need to learn some good, basic employability skills, and then we’d help them find a job in the community, and then we can support them while they’re on that job, too.” (It’s important to note that all Workshops employees are paid in accordance with Department of Labor regulations.)
This shift in Workshops’ model, from long-term employment to a more educational approach, comes as a result of societal changes, Crow says. “People with disabilities are more widely accepted [now],” she says. “Whereas 40 years ago, an organization like ours was the only game in town if someone had Down syndrome or some other intellectual disability that was relatively significant.”
The majority of Workshops’ production workers, Crow says, have intellectual or mental health disabilities, though there are quite a few physically disabled people employed as well. Last year, Workshops also began “integrating” its workplace, meaning that it expanded its focus to include people with other barriers to entering the job market — people like Mark Gorden.
“We’ve gone to a lot of the shelters around town,” Crow says. “Some addiction rehabilitation programs, some community corrections agencies. We’ve brought in folks without documented disabilities, but also people who have some barriers to employment and need to work in a more sheltered work environment. There are people with all kinds of different abilities in the building now, which I think is a great thing. It helps the people that we serve with disabilities relate to a lot more different types of people, because that’s the reality. That’s what happens when people leave here. You’re going to be in an integrated workplace.
“It’s just really interesting to see the friendships that form with that,” she adds. “And it kind of gives people with higher abilities a much bigger sense of purpose, because they’re not only here doing production work, but they’re also here helping people with disabilities who are on their path to finding good employment as well.”
For the people whom Workshops assists — particularly the mentally disabled — that sort of acclimation to a work environment is the most essential service Workshops provides. While the particulars of the work — labeling envelopes, assembling small metal widgets, sorting clothes hangers — have a slight learning curve to them, the real lesson, Crow says, is “how to be a good employee.
“They’re learning how to stay on task, how to come to work on time, how to come back from their breaks, how to dress appropriately, how to get along with coworkers, how to take direction from a supervisor in a constructive manner,” Crow says. “So a lot of the intangibles, or soft skills, are what people are learning here.”
Workshops also collaborates with Birmingham city high schools, working with small groups of special-needs students. The second story of the Workshops building features a classroom for those students, who spend half of their school days for one semester at Workshops — “and they work on our [production] floor just like everybody else, too,” says Crow. “All of these kids, we want to help them learn that work can be a really positive thing, so that if you leave high school, and you are a person with significant disabilities — If you go home and sit on your mom’s couch, your abilities, your confidence, all these things that you’ve learned and build over 12 years or more of school, you lose them really fast. We want to help people move as quickly as possible straight from high school to employment so they have the best possible outcome.”
“Just a Drop in the Bucket”
“We just hope to grow,” says Crow of the 117-year-old organization. “We are just a drop in the bucket when it comes to serving people with disabilities. When you look at the census figures, there are over 60,000 working-age adults with disabilities in the Birmingham metropolitan area. Not all of those people want to work or are capable of work, but there sure are a lot more people who want to work and are capable of work than the people we’re serving now. For the first time in our history, we have a pretty good wait list of people to serve.”
Workshops maintains a staff of 22 full-time employees and one part-time employee — not including its production workers — and its location along Third Avenue South in Avondale gives it plenty of room to expand its campus.
Moving forward, Crow says, Workshops is collaborating with UAB’s Collat School of Business to create its own social enterprise. “In addition to, not instead of, doing work for all these other local companies, we’d love to develop our own product or service that we can sell out of here,” he says.
But working with companies who might want to outsource tasks to Workshops remains a priority for Crow. “The more business customers or community partners we have, the more work we’re able to do and the more people we’re able to serve. There’s definitely a direct correlation between those things,” she says.
In addition to the nonprofit’s usual industrial partners, Crow says she hopes Workshops can also work with smaller, local start-ups. “[It’s] really almost anything that requires handwork,” she says. “We’ve started putting together necklaces for a local jewelry maker. We’ve talked to a woman who makes really beautiful leather handbags about maybe putting together some items for her. This whole maker movement that’s going on in the South, I think that has great potential for us.
“It’s boundless, in some ways, the things we may end up taking on as we grow,” she adds.
“The People Are the Product”
“It gave me a job when I needed one, first of all,” says Paula Linares, another of Workshops’ production workers. “I can’t work the way I used to. I have rheumatoid arthritis and I have degenerative spinal disease. I used to work in management, where I was lifting things — 75 pounds, 100 pounds of stuff every day, and I just can’t do that anymore.
Linares says she plans on staying at Workshops “until I can’t stay here no more … for a long time.” It fits her needs, she says — but there’s an aspect of community that’s just as gratifying to her.
“They recognize you as a worker,” she says. “I was recognized as an excellent employee not too long ago, and that’s nice because they recognize that you’re doing a good job when you do, … that’s probably the biggest thing, because that’s important. Your treatment at your job by your boss is important, and that doesn’t always happen everywhere else.”
For Gorden, the sense of community at Workshops goes beyond words. “A lot of things here aren’t spoken so much, but it’s by example,” he says. “This place, the people here, had a degree of excellence that I noticed right off when I got here. Not just in their job performance, but in their overall attitude — how they carry themselves, how they conduct themselves, how they care for the people in their employment. They’ve been inspirational to me. They’ve been an ideal of what I should strive to be as an individual in all areas of my life.”
Before his accident, Gorden had worked in what he describes as “corporate America” — and Workshops, he says, “is totally the opposite of that.
“It’s not about the bottom line, it’s about the people who get you to the bottom line,” he says. “The people are really the product of this place.”
Jerry Gardner, a production worker who started at Workshops after a stroke in 2004, is a man of relatively few words — but when asked about the community at Workshops, he repeats one sentence with a broad smile. “I get along with everybody,” he says, more than a few times.
When asked about his aspirations — if there’s somewhere he’d like to work in the future — Gardner flashes another toothy grin. “Right here,” he says.