For Good: Social enterprise employs intellectually disabled in St. Petersburg

Just around the corner from St. Petersburg hotspots 3 Daughters Brewing and Brocante Vintage Market, Carl Estes is quietly running a social enterprise. 

At Louise Graham Regeneration Center in Midtown St. Pete, intellectually disabled adults, often marginalized or ignored by mainstream society, are finding purpose through work while building self-esteem via positive social interaction. 

Ultimately the goal at Louise Graham is to help make intellectually disabled adults employable out in the world. The roughly 70 participants spend six hours a day working at the center doing tasks like assembly and sewing, learning about meal planning and cooking, socializing and keeping up with current events.  

But this group of adults with their myriad challenges are also a challenge to those who want to help them. 

“The federal government doesn’t make it easy to help this population out. Programs are underfunded. There’s major paperwork and at the end of the day, it’s not always feasible,” says Carl Estes, the Regional Manager at the Louise Graham Regeneration Center

Social enterprise for steady stream of revenue

That’s why the leaders at Louise Graham developed a flagship social enterprise business back in 2008, Secure Shred of Florida, to ensure a steady stream of revenue so that they can continue running the organization that has helped adults with intellectual disabilities since it was founded by its namesake in 1949. 

Secure Shred of Florida employs its highest functioning adults with intellectual disabilities. They learn to drive forklifts, to do light mechanical work and be fast and efficient while loading huge industrial shredders. But being high functioning won’t get you the gig if you have past felonies, which Estes says is not uncommon in this population. 

When companies hand over their secure documents, there is much regulation on the companies who are responsible for destroying those documents, so complete background checks are done on each employee. Secure Shred is also AAA Certified by the National Association of Information Destructions, or NAID.

“If we didn’t meet the security standards, we wouldn’t be AAA NAID Certified. … NAID doesn’t water that down any because of us,” says Art O’Hara, Executive Director of LGCR and of R’Club Child Care, Inc., the organization that took over the LGRC in 2006 when it was in danger of closing down due to lack of funding. 

“We get no hand outs because we’re not for profit,” adds Estes. He also says that because Secure Shred moves the documents from businesses to the Louise Graham Center to be shredded instead of shredding right on their clients’ premises, some potential clients are concerned about the security. 

“We do have a little more of people looking into us and making sure we’re doing right, and that’s the part that people don’t understand,” says Estes. 

Secure Shred has destroyed documents for the IRS and currently has a large contract with Wells Fargo.

“Wells Fargo did their own security analysis and they were stricter than IRS,” says O’Hara. 

“We try to educate that we’re a social enterprise. That’s the key to this whole thing; it’s the enterprise and how it benefits everyone,” says Al Soto, consultant, retired social worker and former Director of the R’ Club and LGRC. 

“You know what’s really cool about this, having been in not for profits for many years, this is really neat because, it’s a business, you know, it’s a business and you have these folks who operate the business, they work at the business and they share the same concern for growing the business,” says Soto. “Our mantra is growth through customer service. That’s the key, we [management] have to try harder, we have to be better, because the folks who are here, they need that voice.” 

The rewards are more than monetary

And it’s not just the intellectually disabled that are positively impacted by all that is done at Louise Graham. 

“The positive thing to me,” says Estes, “is seeing how they grow from when they come in the door until now.” 

Estes has been with the center for three years, but says some of the photos of program participants from 15 years ago show vast improvement in the quality of their lives. 

“You can physically see a transformation. They’re not someone frail that has to be wheeled around in a wheelchair. Now they’re able to be up and walking around and doing things, and they taught me, my own personal self about this population because I knew nothing about it.” 

Estes took a two week class when he was hired to learn about people with intellectual disabilities. 

“That’s when I really gained a lot more respect for these clients, because again, I just looked at them as being disabled adults, like probably a lot of the folks do in this world,” says Estes. “Being worried about the population when I first started totally went away after I was here because it gave you a better appreciation. ... It’s a huge learning experience and that’s what makes me get up and come here every day.”

Estes, O’Hara and Soto all agree that working with the intellectually disabled adult population is hugely rewarding, especially when they see huge turnarounds like in the case of Scott Adams, a former lawn service worker who is high functioning but generally had a hard time maintaining employment. 

Estes says at first Adams was hesitant about working at the center, but eventually grew to take pride in his work, even earning the Employee of the Year award this year from Respect of Florida, a statewide nonprofit who works to assist adults with disabilities be as independent as possible through employment.

“This is extremely significant because this is what Louise Graham does. Mr. Adams is just an example of some the other folks that have had their lives changed in very positive ways,” says Soto.

“Yep!” says Adams, with a well-earned proud smile. 
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Read more articles by Amy Beeman.

Amy Beeman is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.