From Rags to Paychecks

By Beacon Staff

It’s heartening to see 30 people celebrate because somebody brought them a huge mound of bar rags. In Flathead Industries’ production area, it’s a common sight.

It means there’s work for the day.

Flathead Industries is a nonprofit organization that works with developmentally disabled clients and other people with special needs to teach them job skills. It owns four thrift shops and a production area to train its clients so they can join the mainstream workforce someday.

“It’s a wonderful company and a wonderful thing to do,” said Mike Allen, business operations manager.

Flathead Industries is split into two separate programs: vocational rehab and developmental disabilities. Employment Specialist Dick Ramos is in charge of vocational rehab, which helps get jobs for people who have special needs but are not developmentally disabled. For example, a client may have been injured and can no longer perform his or her job duties. Flathead Industries helps them develop skills to qualify for a new job.

The developmental disabilities program is designed, theoretically, to prepare clients for jobs. It is rare, however, for developmentally disabled clients to achieve sufficient multi-tasking abilities to qualify for jobs outside the thrift stores and production area, Allen said. By understanding this reality, Allen and production manager Michelle Pellett say they can focus on their ultimate goal: keeping clients busy and happy.

“It’s knowing that they need support everyday in their lives,” Pellett said. “And to help them enjoy everyday they’re here.”

Flathead Industries’ thrift shops are in Kalispell, Bigfork, Whitefish and Columbia Falls. Their revenue pays for all operational costs that the state doesn’t provide, Ramos said. That totals to about 25 percent of the annual budget.

At the thrift stores, clients – called “consumers” – wash and dry clothes, sort products, hang shirts, attach price tags, arrange racks and do about anything that’s necessary. The Kalispell Thrift Store has 30 consumers and 10 staff employees, who often serve as supervisors but are considered co-workers. The other three stores have about eight consumers and two staff members each.

The production area is located across the street from the Kalispell Thrift Store in Flathead Industries’ administrative building. There, clients do a variety of jobs, from packaging fly fishing accessories for Griffin Enterprises to assembling clips for bear spray caps to folding towels and bar rags for Valley Linen.

Valley Linen washes towels and rags for local businesses and then brings the clean linens to the production area for folding. Luke Chapman, head washer at Valley Linen, said he loves to see the consumers’ enthusiasm each time he drops off a load.

“They’re a very awesome group,” he said. “They’re always happy and they’re always excited to see me come in and bring them work.”

“They make you feel good when you go over there,” he added.

A full-time consumer shows up at 9 a.m. for work and leaves at 2:45 p.m. All consumers receive paychecks twice a month for work at not only the production area and thrift stores, but also for projects such as cleaning streets, residences and businesses. In the production area, consumers’ paychecks depend on the amount of work they do.

“It teaches them about incentive,” Pellett said.

Flathead Industries started in 1973 with eight clients. The Kalispell Thrift Store came two years later. Today there are about 135 clients between the production area, four thrift stores and six group homes. Clients are directed to Flathead Industries by organizations such as Opportunity Resources and privately by families.

Some clients take a van out to a donated barn – the “Rag Barn” – to tear shirts into rags and do other projects. Others don’t work. They spend their time at the group homes. Flathead Industries also owns multiple apartment complexes for clients to live and vans for transportation.

For staff, it’s hard work that requires tremendous dedication.

“Acquiring and sustaining good staff is hard in the Flathead Valley,” Allen said. “Social work has never been a good paying job. There are behavioral issues (with clients). It’s difficult – it’s always a challenge.”

Willie Ragen is technically retired, but he still likes to keep himself busy. Luckily for him, Flathead Industries has a senior program too, located in the same building as the production area. He is 90 years old and has been with Flathead Industries for 24 years.

Ragen is one of the usually eight seniors who participate in daily projects and activities, like making pottery, going to Woodland Park and exercising to Richard Simmons tapes. Gail Funke, one of the senior program’s coordinators, hopes to raise enough money to go to Disneyland one day.

For now, the seniors are happy to immerse themselves in their work and the occasional birthday party, which makes Willie happy, Funke said.

“Willie’s a big party guy,” she said.