Kalamazoo's MRC Industries cultivates ability in people with disabilities

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

MRC Industries' artWorks studio can't keep Joan Ruiz's art from flying out the door.

On March 31, artWorks' Instagram posted a photo of Ruiz with her sewn yarn-on-burlap piece, and it sold instantly. 

Commissions come in, and if they're pet-based, they often go to her. 

Disclosure: My wife wanted artWorks paintings of our cats for last Christmas. The results, now hanging up in our kitchen, captured the furry goofballs. The artist was Ruiz.

Writer Mark Wedel commissioned art of his cats from artWork' artist Joan Ruiz, who is known for her colorful, cheerful animal paintings."It took a long time," for her to paint our cats. "It wasn't coming out right, the way I wanted it to come out. So I just took my time on it, and it came out good."

How does it feel when, after she's made something, and for a brief moment it's all hers, but then she has to say goodbye to it?

"It's so weird. I can get something done, and the next day or so, it sells!" Ruiz laughs. She seems full of laughter when she speaks.

Ruiz says, "Someday, I want to be really, really good."

Artist Joan Ruiz with a wall-hanging she created."Joan, you are really, really good," Bridget Fox, artWorks art instructor and retail supervisor, tells her.

Ruiz laughs. 

Independence, work, art, community

MRC Industries and artWorks' mission is to help adults with disabilities achieve a higher level of independence.

"MRC's mission is to encourage and support individuals living with a disability to achieve their fullest potential through employment, skill building, and active community involvement," their mission statement reads on their website.

This year, both MRC and artWorks have been undergoing changes and expansions. 

On May 16, 2022, Dan Pontius took the helm as MRC's CEO. He's looking to "shake up the system a little bit," to ask, "How can we really do things differently?" 

Dan Pontius, MRC's new executive directorIn the spring, remodeling started at artWorks' studio on the Kalamazoo Mall, which involved taking down a wall. The studio side, where over 70 people learn and create their art, is being expanded. A gallery, where art can be purchased, will be on the other.

A special grand opening of the MRC artWorks' retail store and studio is scheduled for the July Art Hop on Friday, July 14.

The wall between the gallery and studio is coming down for another reason. "We want people to come and visit with the artists, see the full effect of our very talented artists," Fox says.

The planned artWorks reopening is June 26. Once again, their door on the Kalamazoo Mall will be open to all, giving the artists a chance to mingle with the wider community.

The most mingling happens during Downtown's monthly ArtHops

"The May ArtHop was the best sales that artWorks has had in its history," Fox says. "The community just blew us away."

In addition to being available at the studio store, artWorks' art is also displayed on the walls and is for sale at Water Street Coffee shops, One Well Brewing, Taco Bobs, Mindset Gym and Physical Therapy, and the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts gallery shop.

They've also shipped art out-of-state. The work of artWorks artists may even be on some famous walls: Musical-themed paintings commissioned by local recording artist Ada LeAnn were given to judges of NBC's "American Song Contest," Snoop Dogg and Kelly Clarkson. 

"So we're busy," Fox says.

While the artists create for pleasure, they are also working artists. "Our artists receive a 75% commission from the sale of the work, and 25% covers materials," Fox says.

An artist herself, Fox says, "I've been a long-time patron before I started working here. A lot of (artWorks) artwork is on my walls. I finally got to meet the faces that went with the names, and it's been just a blessing to work here.

Bridget Fox is an artWorks instructor and supervisor of the retail store."Our artists have taught me, as a working artist myself, to just get out of your head and just enjoy the process. Let go and don't give yourself those strict boundaries. Just let it flow," she says.

Expanding help for team members

While artWorks is one part of MRC's mission, job training and support for helping people live independently is another. To help people with disabilities gain independence, MRC also trains people in non-creative job skills and then helps them get employed. Work ranges from industrial assembly jobs to what Ruiz is doing when she's not making art, making pizzas for a local pizza franchise. 

When Pontius took over at MRC in May, he was facing programs that needed updating and a population that was shifting.

COVID brought challenges to their funding and operation. There'd been a "huge change in participation in some of our programs due to serving a large older adult population, and many of those individuals not returning back to programming as we came out of COVID," Pontius says.

Some artwork for sale at the MRC artWorks retail store and studio."We have had to shift quite a bit in the last year, and that's really to develop our programming to be much more appealing to a younger generation that is much more tech-savvy — they're not interested in these manufacturing type jobs, they're more interested in technology and service/delivery based jobs." 

MRC has had to expand their career tracks for their "team members," as the working individuals are known, "to allow individuals to get really hands-on experience, some recognized credentialing and just overall experience that's going to lead to employment in the community."

It's all about getting people on the "MRC career pathway," so they can get as close as they can to "where they don't need our services anymore," he says.

But people need more than jobs to become independent. MRC is looking into "other areas that we might not have served in the past," Pontius says.  

"Community Living Supports is a new program for us this year." That works to build "some of the early-on independence skills. We're doing this within individuals' homes. We might be teaching them how to do laundry, how to navigate the bus system, good health, and hygiene," he says. 

MRC artWorks is a vibrant hub of creativity on the Kalamazoo Mall.Not all the team members can get to a point where they can survive on their own, says Pontius.

"But many people can be independent with additional supports. And that's where organizations like us come in," he says.

"I think that a lot of individual members who are team members here, they've come to us from adult foster homes or specialized residential homes, and they might be able to, and oftentimes are, able to live independently if they have some additional supports in the home and additional training and skills development."

A fresh set of eyes

Before arriving at MRC, Pontius spent 13 years at Milestone Senior Services, "really focusing on helping people maintain independence, which is really a lot of what we do here as well."  

He says he's "coming with a fresh set of eyes. I'm a bit of a dreamer, a visionary... a bit of a yes-man, saying 'Yes, we can do this.' With the understanding of what's realistic and that we might not get 100% there," he says. 

The question he's asking is, "How can we really do things differently?"

For the coming year, an area MRC would like to look at is housing. "I think we're going to approach that in a much different way than how that's offered within the community now." 

Some artwork for sale at the MRC artWorks retail store and studio.He sees the possibility of MRC providing "transitional housing with the ultimate goal, again, to inject our services into that housing to ultimately get people independent and living on their own. Teaching them job skills, teaching them independent living skills, providing them with social supports with a social worker within the facility. All with the goal to transition out of that housing and into their own independent housing." 

Pontius says this would be different than what Residential Opportunities, Inc. does, which is to offer supported living for persons with disabilities (another disclosure: ROI is the long-time employer of this writer's wife, who is their human resources director), and different than adult foster homes. "Their goal is to keep people safe within their housing. I don't think their goal is always to transition people into an independent state and out of that housing. It's really to keep them safe and provide them with skills within that, too," Pontius says. 

"We're in the very early, early phases of those conversations," he adds. 

The lack of housing is a crisis for some of the people MRC serves. "We have close to 50 individuals who are unhoused within our case management. And this is very common within the behavioral health service area." Pontius is hoping to find  a way to give a "hand-up to get them to a good place on their own."

Moving away from the 14(c) subminimum wage

First and foremost, the work that MRC team members do helps get them out into the community, says Pontius. 

But he acknowledges that in the past there's been some controversy regarding the way people with disabilities have been employed.

"We've traditionally been known as a sheltered workshop," Pontius says. 

MRC holds a 14(c) subminimum wage federal certificate, meaning they can pay their team members less than minimum wage.

The only people allowed to be paid below minimum wage are "prisoners and people with disabilities," he says.

"We're quickly going away from that model, and this career development (program) is getting away from that sheltered workshop model, and doing the right thing."

MRC can make sure that its people are getting at least minimum wage, "for the work while they're learning skills. And our ultimate goal is to get to a living wage in the coming years," he says. 

"And we can still provide paid work opportunities. We just have to be creative as an organization to find that solution."

"It was a program that was started with all of the best intentions, but sometimes things don't work out that way. I believe it was to allow people to work at their own pace, while they were learning skills," he says.

"But there were some individuals who were making 35 cents an hour, just because maybe they're not engaged in the work, or just not able to do the work." 

Pontius says he made the point as he came in that "We are the organization that advocates for these individuals, and we're the perfect organization to accept somebody who may not be able to work at a normal pace. But we're not going to treat them any differently than somebody who can work at a normal pace." 

Making the art her own

Ruiz tells Fox that, the night before, "I had a dream that I was selling my artwork."

Fox says, "Well, you are selling your artwork."

"I know, but like, I was doing it myself, out in the public," Ruiz says.

"That's an ultimate goal for you to do, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Ruiz says, laughing.

Artist Joan Ruiz and Bridget Fox, artWorks teacher and retail supervisorBefore she moved to Kalamazoo, Ruiz had a good life in California, she says. "I grew up out there, then after I lost my Mom, then my older sister asked me and my boys to come out here." 

Asked if she lives with her sister, she says, "No, I've got my own place."

She's been employed, and due to work has to cut down on her artWorks studio time from four days a week to one.

"I've been busy since the kids left mommy's nest," she says. 

She joined the artWorks program in 2007, back when "I would just kinda scribble" to make art.

What has MRC artWorks taught her about art? 

"Everything. I've been through so many instructors. Everybody has their own way to teach."

Her preferred subjects are "owls and cats — kitties!" What we see in her work are creatures with big, expressive eyes; stylized staring owls, and fluffy cats.

Teachers can teach how to make art, but then she's got to make her art her own, with her own style.

She says with a laugh, "That's what I do. Just paint!" 

Joan Ruiz, an artist at artWorks, loves vibrant colors.There's no pressure for the artists to conform to any style or subject, Fox says. They can do what they want with their art.

In the three years Fox has been with artWorks, she says, "I've seen growth and the confidence — I just get teary-eyed."

"Aww!" Ruiz says.

About MRC: MRC Industries, Inc. serves individuals in Kalamazoo County with developmental or intellectual disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, emotional impairments, and mental illness. MRC is a 501(c)3 organization. Funding sources include individual and corporate donor contributions; community-wide fundraising events like the Kalamazoo Klassic; federal, state, and local grants; Community Mental Health; United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region; fees for contracted work; and gifts to the Annual Campaign and Endowment.

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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.