TOC stunned by closing

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 6, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

Last Monday afternoon, Dale Feltes walked into the Tidewater Occupational Center (TOC) workroom and made the toughest announcement of his seven years as the TOC executive director. He told the 132 workers and staff that, after 32 years of helping the area’s mentally challenged find a place of gainful employment, the center would be closing on June 11. A slumping economy and competition from overseas manufacturers had caused the disposable cutlery kit prices (which the TOC makes for salad bars and hotels across the country) to fall dramatically, sending the company’s losses to nearly half a million dollars last year.

As he spoke, some mouths fell open. Eyes widened, and tears flowed from them. Employees couldn’t understand why one of the few places in the area that allowed them to work, to socialize with their friends, to find a sense of normal human existence that was often hidden in such a society, was just going to disappear.

Email newsletter signup

No more waiting for the bus to arrive in the morning. No more working for a paycheck that gave them their first real taste of financial success. No more joking around during breaks. No more parties for outstanding work, and no more annual Christmas party at the Suffolk Armory.

Ralph Carter first came to the TOC when Walter Marsh started it as a macram\u00E9 factory out on Newport Street back in the 1970s. He was there when it moved to Pruden Boulevard and became a ceramics factory in the 1980s. And he still sweeps up the floors as his pals churn out the cutlery packets.

&uot;It’s nice to work down here,&uot; he said. &uot;I make a lot of money here. I love this place.&uot;

&uot;I liked talking to my friends,&uot; said Christine Burden, who has been coming to the TOC for 11 years. &uot;I liked the people that ran it, and I’ll miss my friends. I’m upset.&uot;

So are the employees’ parents and caretakers. &uot;I just don’t know what in the world the people out there are going to do,&uot; said Christine’s mother Marion. &uot;There’s nowhere else for some of them to go. It’s the only job they can get, and it’s the only socialization that they have.

&uot;They look at getting up and going to work like I do on going on vacation.,&uot; she said. &uot;They’re people that need help and can’t go anywhere else. They can’t go to Hardee’s and get a job, because some of them don’t even know how to count money. I feel like the city of Suffolk just didn’t realize what they do.&uot;

James Talman’s daughter Diana brought home a letter on Monday explaining just what was happening. &uot;She was crying when she walked in the door,&uot; Talman said. &uot;I asked her what was wrong, and she handed me the letter. I was dumfounded. This was an outlet for myself and the other parents who needed their children to go out and work. It was a well-supervised place. I just wish that there was something that I could do or that someone else could do to pick it up and get it going again.&uot;

&uot;I don’t know what I’m going to do right now,&uot; said Diana, who has been going to the TOC for 25 years.

After 30 years at the Center, Barbara McClenney now has to find a new start at helping the clientele. Back in September, she and the rest of the TOC staff took a pay cut to try to save the center. &uot;This is heartbreaking for them,&uot; McClenney said. &uot;At this point, they don’t know what they’re going to do. When you’re working with people like them, you have to be very kindhearted, sympathetic, and compassionate, and you use that same compassion during a disaster like this. We let them know that we’re here for them, and that we’ll answer any questions they have. I’d give anything to start a place of my own for them.&uot;

The facility closed to avoid bankruptcy, which would have resulted in the foreclosure of all their property.

By cutting their losses, Feltes said, the TOC may, to an extent, resurface. &uot;We’re going to see the machinery, the office equipment, everything,&uot; he said. &uot;There’s a lot of value here. After we pay our creditors, the rest of the money will go to help our employees.

&uot;We’ve been working with the Western Tidewater Mental Health Department and the Community Service Board to help them find work,&uot; he said. &uot;We’re talking to the Virginia Employment Commission.&uot;

So maybe, just maybe, things will be all right, McClenney said. &uot;I have a genuine feeling that the Lord will provide for them,&uot; she said. &uot;With all the negative things that have happened to them over the years, something positive always came out in their favor.&uot;

Doug Bellamy’s even surer. &uot;I felt a little down, but they told us not to get upset because it’s going to be all right,&uot; said the machine operator. &uot;The Lord will bless us again!&uot;