A non-profit organization employing 63 individuals from Swain, Jackson and Macon counties is seeking to aggressively expand its operations and the number of people with disabilities it serves in the region.
Webster Enterprises is a private 501- C3 community rehabilitation program that provides training, evaluation and job placement services to people with disabilities in the tri-county area. Last year, Webster celebrated 35 years of serving these communities by committing to a revitalization of its facilities and programs which had in recent years seen a decrease in capacity and participation due partly to economic factors.
As of 2007 there were approximately 10,000 people with disabilities in the area between the ages of 16 and 65. The economic downturn has been especially hard for people with disabilities, and there is a dire need for the direct support Webster provides to people with physical or mental disabilities or other barriers to employment, said Gene Robinson. Robinson, the former executive director of Webster who was a founding member and who had piloted the organization during its most successful period in the late 1990s, was called out of retirement to help jump-start the revitalization project.
Robinson and members of the Webster's board of directors attended a recent meeting of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, where they requested a contribution of $20,000 from the county to demonstrate community support for the project. The remaining funds will come from grants and loans, including a special low-interest loan of $70,000 that Webster received from Jackson County late last year.
“My job is to get this program back to where it was and to get it back on track to serve all the people in the catchment area effectively and efficiently again,” Robinson told the commissioners.
Ten years ago, Webster employed 130 participants and staff at its facilities, but that number had dropped drastically, and in early 2010 there were only about 30.
Since the beginning of the revitalization efforts last summer, the organization has already seen an almost 100 percent growth in the number of workers and program participants. In that period, Webster has brought in 33 new participants and staff, including 11 from Macon County (for a total of 16 participants and one staff member from the county).
As part of Webster's mission to provide training and job opportunities, the organization runs a manufacturing facility for medical products, namely surgical drape sheets that are included in disposable surgical kits. Webster Enterprises was recently accepted as a member of MARC (Merchandizing Association for Rehabilitation Centers), a regional consortium of 14 community rehabilitation programs across western North Carolina. Collectively, the association represents the largest producer of drape sheets in the entire country.
“And we're growing fast,” Robinson said.
This year, Webster's revenue forecast has increased by 25 percent to $1.4 million. It is projecting a 150 percent increase within two years. And the program wants to double its number of participants in that time. To reach these goals, Webster needs funding for both working capital and significant facility upgrades. The organization has budgeted $116,000 for upgrades to its Jackson County facility and an additional $11,000 for technology upgrades.
Webster has already received a grant of $50,000 from the Janirve Foundation and another of $37,500 from the Evergreen Foundation. In addition, the Cannon Foundation, the Sisters of Mercy Foundation and the Community Foundation of WNC have all promised funds pending demonstration of community support for the revitalization project.
If the revitalization project goes smoothly, the organization is expected to return to profitable levels of operation by next. Robinson reminded Macon's commissioners that all profits are directed back into the rehabilitation program and community outreach efforts. Robinson also noted that Webster's community rehabilitation program works in cooperation with other programs such as the Macon Program for Progress which he himself helped to establish in the early 1960s.
Macon County pitches in
Commissioner Ronnie Beale made a motion to immediately appropriate $10,000 out of the county's contingency funds and to promise and additional allocation of $10,000 in the coming year's budget. He explained that expediting a portion of the appropriation would help Webster with other grant application it currently has pending. The motion was unanimously approved.
Commission Chairman Brian McClellan said that Webster provided a valuable service to the communities it serves. “To me it's about providing jobs,” said McClellan. “It's an economic investment.”
Webster hires participants at rates above minimum wage.
Beale noted that beyond employment opportunities, Webster provides access to a range of valuable services to its participants. “It does more than furnish a job for a handicapped person,” he said of the program. “It gives inroads to other benefits that those families need.”
He explained that participation in Webster's program was one of the ways that individuals were connected with other resources such as housing support.
County Manager Jack Horton noted that many of the individuals who participate in the program would find it difficult to find employment elsewhere, adding that the program is valuable for the community as well as the individuals. “It's much better for them to have a job where they are producing a valuable product and earning wages instead of staying at home, with relatives or in an institution or being supported by public programs.”
The program can increase the economic well-being and sense of self-worth of the participants, said Horton, adding that in the past he has seen individuals who went through community rehabilitation training programs be able to join the mainstream workforce afterwards. “I've seen a lot of successes from programs like this,” he told the commissioners.
Robinson said that currently there are now Macon Couty representatives on Webster's board of directors. He asked that the commissioners consider recommending someone from the community to sit on the board in the future.