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A better world through business partners: How the Coastal Center builds community for its clients

When Georgia-grown, nationally beloved Savannah Bee Company was looking for a local solution to their holiday season packaging needs, EVP Maria Lancaster said their thoughts turned quickly to a local company: Quantum, Inc. “The services Quantum offers afforded Savannah Bee the opportunity to enter into a new and strategic market, an opportunity that would not have been possible without them,” said Lancaster. “In return, our partnership gave adults with disabilities an opportunity to work. Opportunity met opportunity in an effective and heartwarming way."

Quantum isn’t just another business services company: it’s part of a comprehensive program empowering adults with developmental disabilities, who do Quantum’s front-line work, to become independent, productive members of their communities. That’s the work the Coastal Center for Developmental Services (CCDS) has been doing for people in the Savannah area since before its incorporation in 1979. With roots in the 1950s, when concerned parents put together the first programs for Georgia citizens with disabilities, the Center’s mission is carried out every day in pre-vocational training (which happens on-the-job at Quantum), community employment (including job coaching and long-term support), and day habilitation (for clients who need a greater measure of support).

“Anytime we can make connections with people, it expands the world of those we serve.”

The focus, said CCDS Executive Director Kathy Thomson, is on community: creating a world their clients can enter with confidence, knowing they’ll find support and acceptance. That’s why the CCDS has taken an active role in the business community, where they ultimately want their clients to find success. They’ve been members of the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce since the 1990’s, and started a business advisory council that, today, boasts a dozen members, meets bi-monthly, and continuously extends the possibilities for their clients. “Anytime we can make connections with people, it expands the world of those we serve,” said Thomson, pointing also to the volunteers they bring in from local universities and the people who see their clients working jobs around Savannah.

And there’s no limit to how expansive that world gets, said Thomson: “The variety of jobs available to our clients is just as wide as those available for you and me.” All they need is a support system and the opportunity to pursue work they find rewarding. The CCDS prepares clients with job training for a variety of settings (Quantum, Inc. alone encompasses four different businesses: catering, printing, specialized assembly, and packaging assembly), and helps them on the job with direct assistance and by cultivating natural supports beyond the Center, like workplace relationships.

Finding just the right job opportunity, however, is more involved and completely personal. “The choice—what you want to do with your life—is a big one, and should be up to the individual,” said Thomson. “That’s why we do a lot of person-centered planning.” For a client who really likes retail work, computers, or animals, that becomes the focus of the job plan; for those without a clear idea of what they want to do, the Center provides a ten-week “sampling” program, where they can try out a variety of jobs with business partners in the community.

The importance of being a business

Because they provide employment for the Coastal Center’s clients, by hiring clients directly and by contracting Quantum Inc. for services they fulfill, business partners are at the center of the Center’s approach. The CCDS uses several methods to connect with companies like the Savannah Bee Company—including client-ambassadors working in the community, corporate volunteering opportunities, positive word-of-mouth generated by Quantum customers—and is further assisted with advice from the business advisory board they started ten years ago.

Looking for ways to build their relationships in the business community, Center leadership decided a regular meeting with their business partners would serve multiple purposes: getting partners more invested in the CCDS, providing a business perspective on organizational challenges, and opening up access to further contacts and solutions. The board has paid off in all three areas, while helping leadership at the CCDS “move from a social-work mindset to a business-partnership mindset,” said Thomson.

The CCDS has also found partnerships through the Savannah Chamber of Commerce, which they joined as part of the same push to act more like, and be seen as, a business. Getting involved in the chamber led directly to a friendship with leaders at local broadcast station WJCL-TV and, before long, a monthly series on the evening news: for the first Monday of every month, the news team profiles one of the Center’s clients working in the community. “It’s been an awesome way to connect with the community,” said Thomson. “They committed to the series for just a year when we started, but we’re now in our third.” Station Marketing Director Jason Usry was so impressed with the Center, in fact, he joined the board.

Other businesses the CCDS has worked with, as local employers for their clients and as Quantum customers, include International Paper, Ikea Distribution, Mitsubishi-Hitachi, St. Joseph’s/Candler Hospitals, Memorial Health, Fiji Water, Publix, Five Guys Burgers, Dole, Chatham Area Transit, and Gulfstream Aerospace, which hasn’t just hired Center clients, but worked with Quantum to produce new ergonomic products: footrests and seat-rests made from scrap materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill. (Products the CCDS not only sells, but has used to find more business networking opportunities—in the form of ergonomics industry conventions.)

“We work hard, and our clients work hard, to show our worth to these companies,” said Thomson. “I’m sure they love our mission, but we also add value to what they’re doing.” Savannah Bee has been so pleased with both, they invited Quantum to add their logo and a statement about the organization on each package—giving their message, as well as their work, a nation-wide reach. (Look for them on shelves at Target.)

A self-sustaining legacy

In its 36th year, the Coastal Center has created a legacy of confidence, independence, and community for people who were offered virtually none of those just two generations ago. Altogether, CCDS serves over 400 individuals, and has placed 200 of those individuals in community jobs—and, over this past year, found that 98 percent of those in the community are satisfied in their work. (On top of which, 76 percent are making above minimum wage.)

“There’s a real move nationwide toward the service model of community inclusion, to get people with developmental disabilities involved in their communities.”

“There’s a real move nationwide toward the service model of community inclusion, to get people with developmental disabilities involved in their communities,” said Thomson. It can be a scary proposition for families, she said, whose first priority is safety, but they have plenty of voices on deck ready to answer questions and assure that the process works. “We bring people in who have been through the experience to talk with families about the experience, the benefits, and the services we provide to help people keep employment and stay safe.” The result is, over the last year, a 100 percent satisfaction rating from clients’ families.

For more information on the Coastal Center’s work and impact, visit www.ccds-sav.org.

Marc Schultz is contributing editor at GCN.


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