Resident pleads for T.O.C.

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 21, 2004

Editor’s note: This speech was made to Suffolk City Council on Wednesday night.

Editor, the News-Herald:

I’m here to plead for help in preventing the planned closing of the Tidewater Occupational Center. Next month, 160 mentally and physically challenged people will lose their jobs. The press has reported that the pay scale varies from $4 to $8 according to their ability. Some make less than that and only a very few reach near the top.

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This is a privately owned sheltered workshop run by a board of directors. The center was founded and operated by Walter J. Marsh to offer employment to mentally and physically handicapped adults. It was run as a family business, and the employees often referred to as his &uot;children.&uot; The primary concern of the director and board was always the welfare of the workers. The Marsh family is no longer involved and the board members have come and gone.

I’ve been told that in these politically correct times that I should not refer to the employees as children, but as clients. I have a daughter who is 30 going 12. A large portion, if not the majority, of the clients fall into this category. I can understand how Mr. Feltes might feel more comfortable with a sterile term like client, but our children, brothers, sisters, and friends need the Council and public’s help.

While money is certainly an issue for some workers and their families, the biggest concern here should be human dignity. These people may not be as smart as we are but are not stupid either. They know they are different. Children and adults can be cruel in pointing this out.

They know as adults they are supposed to work and help support the family unit. At T.O.C. they are gainfully employed and socially interact with their true peers. The workplace is where their friends and co-workers are. Their social lives revolve around lunches and breaks at T.O.C.

I am not here to place blame for the closing though there is plenty to go around. Sept. 11 temporarily shut down the airline industry, which negatively impacted the sale of the napkin and condiment packs T.O.C. produces. Our government came up with a plan to help the airlines, but so far not T.O.C. The final nail appears to be the expanding of trade with China.

Some of the federal, state and local agencies and politicians we’ve contacted say par of the problem in saving T.O.C. is that many people oppose sheltered workshops because the workers are exploited because they don’t receive minimum wage.

Apparently these same people don’t have a problem with a Chinese government that suppresses democratic reform with tanks and undercuts American businesses by paying a wage even lower.

The current director and majority of the board feel they’ve done all they can do. They are not interested in any temporary cash influx to stall off the inevitable. Now you know as much as I know. The only thing that can save T.O.C. is for a non-profit private or government agency to buy them out. Government grants and charitable contributions could be used to offset the losses until another product line or improved sales promotion and strong business liaisons can be set up. I do not have the capital or contacts to bring this about. I have had mixed results from our elected officials. Randy Forbes’ office and George Allen’s office have responded positively and promised active support. I have been playing phone tag with Chris Jones, but have second-hand information that he is outraged and actively seeking help. I hope to contact him tomorrow.

The question is what has council done and what is council going to do? One-hundred sixty workers and 40 dedicated supervisors and staff are going to lose their jobs if we don’t do something. This staff of loving and dedicated people even took pay cuts to do a job most of us wouldn’t even consider to keep the doors open. Closing should not be an option. If the director suggested it, he should have been fired. If a board member suggested it, he should have been replaced.

Governor Warner has not responded to e-mails, faxes or phone calls. Mr. Dickens, maybe Warner would take a call from the mayor of Suffolk. City council and city staff have contacts I do not. We need to do whatever needs to be done and take this as high as it needs to go including Capitol Hill and the White House.

Kerry people, where is your man? This would make a great news story or campaign ad: &uot;Administration’s Economic and Foreign Policies Put Disabled Out of Work.&uot;

Our federal government has money to help build Iraq (an oil-rich nation).

The city continues to find money to fill the sinkhole at the corner of Constance and Main. If the City of Suffolk can find funding to pay for site preparation twice and have people on staff who can convince a developer to build a luxury hotel in a flood zone, saving T.O.C. should be easy.

In a recent development, The Virginian-Pilot reported Wednesday morning that the Western Tidewater Community Services Board is in talks with T.O.C. to try to save the sheltered workshop.

At a meeting at T.O.C. Tuesday night with &uot;caregivers&uot; (politically correct term for parents, brothers, sisters, and friends) that representatives of WTCSB attended, no mention was made of this. If discussions are under way, Council should do whatever it can to help influence a positive outcome. If we don’t do something, 160 mentally and physically challenged workers are going to have not just their jobs but their dignity taken from them, and anyone who stands by and does nothing will have given theirs away.

Jimmy L. Burden

Grove Avenue