The week between graduation and the beginning of summer semester is a quiet one on Mount Mercy University’s northeast Cedar Rapids campus, but Aron Karobezi and Erisa Niyibhitanga keep busy.
“Cleaning something” is how Karobezi describes his work day. “I’m mopping, I’m vacuuming. Every day, I do something.”
Karobezi, 50, and Niyibhitanga, 23, both of Cedar Rapids, are fortunate: They and five co-workers are members of Linn County’s last supervised work group for the developmentally disabled.
“I love it,” said Niyibhitanga. “I have good supervisors, and (the students) treat me well.”
That’s possible only because Mount Mercy stepped up to fund a supervisor for its on-campus workers as similar groups were eliminated to cover the county’s $5.3 million deficit for mental health services in the fiscal year that ends June 30.
“We’re a last resort, and even the last resort is gone,” said Jim Nagel, director of the county’s Options program for mentally handicapped and developmentally disabled (MHDD) residents.
County supervisors cut $65,500 for such “enclave” services last October. The program found low-paying, easily learned tasks for its clients — basic custodial work such as Mount Mercy’s, light assembly and sorting, or stuffing envelopes for mailings, for example — at workplaces around Cedar Rapids. The county paid a supervisor at each job site to keep workers safe and on task.
The county cuts eliminated the equivalent of 3.6 full-time supervisors, sending enclave clients into programs that are cheaper for the county.
“This is just heartbreaking for us parents,” said Janet Wagner of Cedar Rapids. “It came up so fast.”
Wagner’s daughter, Brook Wagner, 49, was part of a county-funded enclave of about 15 that stuffed mailers at Transamerica in Cedar Rapids. The jobs were eliminated when Transamerica moved the work out of state, but the loss of county funding means Brook Wagner won’t get a new job. Instead, she attends a less costly “day habilitation” program at the new Linn County Community Services/Options building in southwest Cedar Rapids.
The goal of “day hab” is improved behavior management and other social skills. But Janet Wagner said her daughter was distraught over the loss of a paying job.
“This brought so much gratification to them and importance,” Janet Wagner said. “What are they going to do with the rest of their life? We’re going back to the ’50s” in the treatment of the developmentally disabled.
Slightly more than 6,500 people are in prevocational programs statewide, according to the Iowa Department of Human Services. That includes clients in full-day, half-day and hourly programs, some of whom may be in more than one program.
Slightly more than 2,000 people are in supported employment programs across the state, according to DHS.
Janet Wagner plans to appeal her daughter’s placement in day hab. She hopes to have Brook placed in prevocational training, hoping that may lead to a paying job at Options. Funding for both programs is mostly through federal Medicaid funding, while enclaves is mostly, if not entirely, county-funded, depending on the individual.
“Anything that allows people to get out in the community and work is important,” Nagel said. “But the money just isn’t there.”
Enclave services, although often under a different name, are offered through non-profits such as Goodwill Industries. The agency took in about 50 people when Life Skills of Iowa City suddenly closed in May 2011 but has no way to serve those whose funding isn’t through Medicaid, said Dana Engelbert, spokeswoman for Goodwill of the Heartland in Cedar Rapids.
Goodwill of the Heartland has about 300 supervised workers, Engelbert said.
Absent government support, it’s hard to see how enclave workers can return to most of their former workplaces without help from their employers. Even Mount Mercy’s program was affected, losing one of its two county-paid supervisors and 13 workers.
“We just feel like it’s a really important part of our mission to offer opportunity,” said Barb Pooley, Mount Mercy’s vice president for finance and business operations. “They’ve been a part of Mount Mercy the past 26 years. We decided it was too important a program.”