Lifting people up: Arnold Center provides career development for people with disabilities

At the Arnold Center’s commercial kitchen and cafeteria on a Tuesday morning, workers are focusing on learning ways to cook healthier foods safely and efficiently. Baked French fries are in the oven and scaled-down cupcakes are already cooling for dessert after decoration with frosting and sprinkles. 

These cupcakes were baked by kitchen trainees.The Center plans to open the cafeteria to the public in late summer, expanding educational and training opportunities for its program participants to a real-world foodservice setting. Trainees will work towards obtaining a safe food handler certification and gain experience in menu planning, serving, and numerous cooking techniques.

Foodservice training is just one of the Arnold Center’s programs aimed at developing the skills and knowledge of individuals with disabilities while engaging with the community. Eligible participants include all those with a documented disability and verified funding source. The Center trains and employs individuals referred by Community Mental Health, the Educational Services Agency, and Midland Public Schools, among others. 

The commercial kitchen and cafeteria give program participants the opportunity to master food service skills and obtain a certification in safe food handling.The Arnold Center, located at 400 Wexford Avenue in Midland, has served the region since 1967. It also operates a branch in Gladwin.

“We empower individuals with disabilities and other barriers to independence through enhanced vocational, social and life skill training and services that lead to greater self-sufficiency,” says Arnold Center Executive Director Jennifer Grace. “Our main goal here is to assist individuals with disabilities in having greater independence, whatever that means to them.” 

Independence is not one-size-fits-all

Jennifer Grace is the Executive Director at The Arnold Center.The level of attainable independence is different for each individual. For some people, independence may mean self-obtained employment in the community and their own transportation. Others may want to learn to cook on their own, work in supported employment, or ride public transportation safely. The Arnold Center works with each person to enhance their talents and support them in progressing towards their goals.

When a new program participant starts at the Arnold Center, they are paired with a mentor and assessed for strengths and interests. 

“For individuals that are coming into programming, we actually sit down with what's called a support team,” explains Grace. “Their funding source, the organization that is referring them here, and our team sit down together to look at what are the individual's goals, and we look at what classes and services and training do we have that will assist the individual in meeting their goals. We then develop a program around that individual.”

Work for real-world customers paves way to independent community employment

The person-focused approach to rehabilitation and professional development hinges on the variety of vocational options available at the Center. As an ISO 9001:2015 certified facility, the Arnold Center provides light manufacturing support to various local companies, including Corteva Agriscience, Nexteer Automotive, and Scientific Anglers. Arnold Center trainees also work as quality support professionals, screening products like shop rags and printed posters for imperfections.

Workers prepare printed materials for a commercial customer.At Arnold Farms, trainees get the opportunity to work at a hydroponic growing operation producing several types of lettuce, Swiss chard, and microgreens. Produce obtained from the farm reaches businesses and nonprofits throughout the community, including the Midland Country Club, Gratzi, Pizza Baker, Whine, and the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational golf event.

“We teach from start to finish from the time of deciding what to plant and setting production schedules and seeding to the final harvesting, packaging, and selling,” says Grace. “Individuals in our programs become account reps, and they interact with the different grocers and learn deliveries.”

The hydroponic farm produces several types of lettuce, Swiss chard, and microgreens for use by local establishments.Partnerships with area businesses act as a natural pathway for building relationships between employers and potential future employees. Working on real-world processes and products equips Arnold Center participants with the experience, credentials, and confidence to apply for jobs and retain employment.

Workers cultivate microgreens at the hydroponic facility.“Our goal here is always to help people obtain community employment independently,” Grace elaborates. “We have individuals that we support in their independent placements and maybe we just help them get started. And then we fade out and then we're just there if they need any retraining or if there's something that they need some help with.”

The Arnold Center made use of its manufacturing capacity, motivated workforce, and community-minded spirit to provide assistance during the pandemic. Its production contracts with corporations and on-site work programs at locations like the wastewater treatment plant granted the Center status as an essential employer. The organization mobilized to produce over 3000 masks and donate them to first responders and food service workers.

Enrichment programs boost social skills and confidence

In addition to employment programs, Arnold Center participants can choose from numerous educational and enrichment opportunities. Offerings like sewing classes, fitness groups, and training in arts and music nurture individual interests while helping participants hone vital skills like communication and time management.

In sewing classes, students learn clothing repair and quilting skills.“Each of the students has different abilities,” explains Arnold Center Kaleidoscope Art Program Coordinator Linda Cassar while leading a drawing class. “We work on social skills during art, work on appropriate responses, how we want to be treated, and how we want to treat others. So the art is really just the conduit.”

As the Arnold Center looks towards the future, it anticipates a renewed focus on building collaborations and partnerships with local nonprofits and the community. The organization aims to prioritize staff development and support as it works to enhance current programs and introduce new initiatives.

This is quality control for shop rags produced at the Arnold Center for industrial clients.“I always say, ‘everything rolls downhill, so you’ve got to lift up,’” says Grace. “We've really concentrated on the training and empowering our staff because we know that the positivity that we put with our staff is going to transfer down into the services that they provide directly to individuals. Our vision for the next few years is just to keep lifting people up.”
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Read more articles by Marta Manning.

A native of Poland, Marta Manning shifted her career path to freelance journalism after working as a research chemist. Her articles have appeared in, the Chemical City Paper, Our Catholic Faith Midland, the national blog, and the Midland Daily News. Marta enjoys drawing and painting, hiking, and supporting local arts and indie music.