It’s a golden moment in a parents’ life — when their child steps out into the world and gets a job.
But many Hall County residents with disabilities have great difficulty in finding jobs after high school and turn to the local nonprofit agency Rehabilitation Industries of Northeast Georgia for help.
RING was started in 1969 when the Gainesville Jaycees collaborated with the Department of Human Resources to facilitate job training, coaching and placement for individuals with disabilities in an effort to move them into a productive life in the working sector, RING director Paula Phillips said.
The project began with only 10 disabled people in the old E.E. Butler High School, but currently serves 100 individuals at its location on Athens Street, Phillips said.
And in the past year, RING has helped 300 disabled people ranging in age from 16 to 60 to find jobs in Gainesville and Hall County.
"We work with all different types of disabilities," Phillips said.
"We serve individuals who may have physical disabilities, learning disabilities ... have hearing loss or are deaf ... who are visually impaired or have developmental disabilities."
Cheryl Roberts said that she decided to move from Newton County to Gainesville so that her disabled daughter, Ashley, now 34, could participate in the RING program upon graduating from high school and have a job.
Ashley Roberts, who is unable to speak, has worked at RING, packaging Wrigley’s gum for 13 years. She works from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. during the week in a supervised environment.
"She just loves her job, she gets her little paycheck every two weeks and decides how to spend it," Cheryl Roberts said. "She’s very independent ... If Ashley stayed home day in and day out, she probably wouldn’t be the happy adult she is now." "We didn’t want her to sit at home and watch soap operas and eat all day," Cheryl Roberts said. "I think everybody needs a purpose when you wake up in the morning ... We just felt like she needed to have a job for her life to be complete ... and it helps your self esteem. There’s way too many people like Ashley sitting at home doing nothing, which is sad."
Phillips said that as the population of Hall County has grown over the years, she has seen the number of disabled RING participants grow as well.
"We work very close with the Hall County and Gainesville City school system, working with students that are involved in the special needs programs that may be juniors and seniors and are getting ready to transition from school and prepare for work," Phillips said. "Our goal is to work with individuals who have a disability who want to return to some type of work or enter some type of work for the first time.
"This gives them an opportunity to come and see what are their strengths, what are the things they maybe need to work on to improve to enter a job in the community."
At the RING center, disabled people are supervised in a disability-friendly environment while they learn how to perform non-physically demanding job duties such as packaging gum or preparing cleaning goods for shipment. Several distribution companies such as Reckitt Benckiser have contracts with RING that compensate program members for packaging products for shipment.
"(RING exists) so they may have a program where they come here part of the day and they’re going to high school the other part of the day," she said. "This gives them an opportunity to start (developing) work skills and looking at what they want to do."
Although 60 percent of RING members last year were between 18 and 24 years old and had no work experience, the program helped them and older adults to get jobs in the supervised annex at the RING center, or helped them to obtain their GED or learn the necessary computer skills to find jobs in offices. Many RING participants find jobs in clerical work or as assistants in the day care industry.
Phillips said that many older adults who have little experience with computers benefit greatly from the basic computer classes that RING offers.
"It really depends on what the person’s interests and skills are, then we start trying to make a match between their interests and the skills and the jobs that are out in the community," said Phillips, who has worked with RING for 27 years.
Phillips said that many RING participants try job sampling or volunteer to work at businesses for free for the first couple of months to give the company a trial run. Often, they are offered part-time or full-time paid positions when the volunteer period ends.
RING receives about half of its funding from the company contracts it receives, but the other half comes from the Division of Rehabilitation Services at the Department of Labor.
As the program grows along with the population of Hall County, its resources are being stretched to the limit. Phillips said that RING has a real need for a new bus to help transport its members to and from work. Three retired community members volunteer their time on a near daily basis to drive the two buses and one van that currently pick up RING workers.
"We all have a tendency when we’re not working to kind of get discouraged and get down," Phillips said. "But suddenly there’s an individual who has a job and gains that independence, and seeing them gain that self confidence when they find a job (is rewarding) ... We try to help them to achieve their highest potential."