Goodwill program puts special-needs youths on path to independence

June 13, 2013 Updated: June 13, 2013 at 3:35 pm

A banker hurriedly crosses the corner of South Tejon Street and East Colorado Avenue, barking numbers on her cell phone.

Lawyers and their assistants head south to the courthouse, pulling pounds of briefs behind them in wire carts.

It's 8 a.m. in downtown Colorado Springs, and no one seems to notice Allison Morin as she sweeps the sidewalk and plucks cigarette butts from planters, despite the fluorescent lime-green vest that broadcasts her presence.

Morin, 21, is a graduate of Goodwill's "Pursuits" program, a set of classes designed by the nonprofit to give social and vocational training to youths with cognitive and other disabilities. While most people don't aspire to brandishing a broom over 27 downtown corners five days a week, for Morin the job means self esteem and financial freedom.

"It gives me independence," says Morin, throwing her arms open wide as if hugging the world. "It makes me feel grown up."

Goodwill's "Pursuits" program helps people ages 18 to 27 who cannot attend college or vocational schools, says Discover Goodwill spokesman Bradd Hafer. Goodwill's classes teach the students social skills, so they can work with people in different environments.

Employing Morin and others with disabilities helps free them from financial dependency on parents, government and other institutions.

"I now have my own debit card, and I am saving for Wii games," says Morin, who works from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursdays through Mondays, usually in downtown.

Morin is one of the first five students to graduate from Pursuits' pilot program, Hafer says. Her progress is not just a symbol of her success; it gave Goodwill the information it needed to improve and continue the program so others can find the same independence.

Going through Pursuits give Goodwill candidates the opportunity to get jobs through the nonprofit's contracts division or elsewhere.

Each year, Goodwill finds jobs for hundreds of people with special needs through its Business Enterprise program, says Joe Cunningham, director of business development for the contracts division. The division runs a document imaging, custodial and grounds keeping services, as well as a commercial laundry.

Cunningham said he bids on each job like any other commercial company. While his bids are competitive, he said he makes sure he doesn't cheapen the abilities or earning power of his employees, who usually make $8 to $14 an hour.

"We are competitively priced," he says. "We are not a low-cost leader."

As Morin sweeps the sidewalk, a 20-something woman silently squeezes between her and the Plaza of the Rockies' west wall, looking annoyed because her path to work is obstructed. Morin smiles and continues to sweep. While she admits she gets "grumpy," most days, she is pleased to be building her own life.

"I am proud of myself," she says. "This job is good for me to do."

Goodwill's Contracts division employs more than 200, Cunningham says. He hopes to employ 50 more by year's end, if he can find positions for them.

Morin, Hafer and Cunningham know there are those who scoff at hiring Goodwill employees. But Cunningham says Goodwill's commercial laundry division washes linens, sheets, tablecloths and other items for businesses from Cheyenne Wyo., to Pueblo , including The Mining Exchange hotel and hospitals. It also serves Fort Carson, Peterson and Schriever Air Force bases. Goodwill's laundry employees cleaned 3.8 million pounds of laundry in 2010; that amount will grew to 6 million pounds this year, Cunningham says.

"The work is life-changing for these folks," he says.

Morin, the youngest of four, has three brothers. She loves to play golf and has competed in a state bowling tournament where she "did terrible," she says, giggling while covering her Front Range-sized smile.

But it's her job - the sweeping, sifting of cigarette butts and lifting trash into the back of disposal trucks - that makes her soul sing. Hard to believe?

Just ask her how she feels.

"I'm a 10!" she exclaims.


Contact Ned Hunter: 636-0275.

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