All in a day’s work

All in a day’s work

CLIFTON – Marcia Honour’s family always told her she could not hold down a job, she couldn’t be independent, and she would never amount to anything.

In 1986, she started going to a workshop at the Daughters of Miriam Gallen Institute, which offered what is essentially factory work for seniors and mentally handicapped community members. Twenty years later, the 61-year-old Honour has "come out of her shell," said Brian Murphy, production manager of the Fred Ables Memorial Sheltered Workshop. When she started, she only folded napkins. Now, she works the shrink-wrap machine, shows up an hour and a half before everybody else, and is basically Murphy’s "right-hand person."

The workshop celebrated its 45th anniversary in May. What began in 1961 as a way to occupy seniors who never got the hang of retirement has grown to a five-day-a-week workshop with almost 50 people filling contracted production orders that require insertions, bagging, hand assembly, and packaging for hospitals, clothing companies, and other businesses. They collate hospital forms and information packets and make such products as belts from materials that have been supplied by contractors.

They make a wage for their work, which is monitored by the N.J. Department of Labor. They are paid per piece completed and make anywhere from an eighth of a penny to $1 per piece assembled, depending on the difficulty of the task. This way, says Murphy, they earn according to their skill level and can work at their own pace.

Marcia Honour assembles a belt at the Fred Abeles Sheltered Workshop at the Daughters of Miriam-Galen Institute in&#8’00;Clifton. Photo by josh lipowsky

The workshop draws its labor force from residents of the skilled nursing facility, members of the adult day-care program, and tenants of the Daughters of Miriam apartment buildings. In the early 1990s the workshop expanded to include people referred by the Passaic County Department of Developmental Disabilities. Five people came from the department then and now the "DDDs," as Murphy calls them, account for half the workforce.

Honour is one of the DDD workers and is very thankful for the opportunities the workshop has given her. "The workshop taught me that I really am my own person," she wrote in a letter to Murphy in May. "I proved to my family I can make it on my own…. The people in Daughters of Miriam helped me develop into a human being."

For Bertha Lerman, who lives in the nursing home at Daughters of Miriam, the workshop keeps her busy. She sits in the ambulatory workshop on the first floor with other workers who can’t make the trip downstairs to the main workshop and loading area. Her job on the day of this reporter’s visit is gluing envelopes to administrative hospital forms.

"I want to show my son I’m still something," she said. "I don’t want to ask my son to give me money for his children," she added, noting that she uses her wages to buy presents for her grandchildren.

Murphy started at the center in 1983 and has watched the program grow since then. "When I came, I noticed it’s a therapeutic tool for residents of Daughters of Miriam," Murphy said. "They weren’t sitting in their rooms, wandering the halls. It’s still like that."

The workshop’s list of clients aren’t just being charitable to the elderly, they expect their products to be completed on time, correctly, and at a good price, Murphy said. Most of the workshop’s contractors have been with it for more than 10 years and he has noticed that many of his newer clients come because of word-of-mouth from past clients, which he feels is a testament to the quality of the work.

"We are a work program," Murphy said. "The people who come here come because that’s what they want to do. It builds their self-esteem and they get a paycheck every two weeks."

For Honour, the workshop has done just that. "People accept me the way I am," she said.

Even though the workshop is just that — a place of work, where quality and efficiency must be maintained to stay in business — the people there have formed close bonds with each other and the staff, said Murphy. "This whole program has become a family, beyond a working relationship," Murphy said.

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