A spry 93-year-old Alta Hamilton answered the knock at the front door of her Walnut Avenue apartment Thursday morning and was surprised when her twice-per-week delivery of food from Ceres' Howard Training Center (HTC) was delivered by Congressman Jeff Denham.
"Pleased to meet you," the Ceres woman told Denham, who spent the morning learning about the mission of the Ceres agency during a tour of the Stonum Road center and both participated in preparing senior meals with developmentally disabled clients and helping to distribute hot meals to approximately six Ceres shut-ins.
Denham explained that he helped prepare the meal and shared a brief exchange.
"I'm told that you just turned 73," said Denham.
"I just turned 93!" she corrected him. "I get around pretty good."
Hamilton said she depends on the meals coming to her door Tuesdays and Thursdays.
"I love them. They're good. The only thing is I can't eat the spinach so I give that to a friend."
The need is greater than resources, said HTC executive director Carla Strong. As it is there is a $150,000 gap between available funding and program expenses. To make up for it, the center puts on fundraisers and thinks of creative ways to generate revenue.
Preparing the 11,666 meals per month for seniors at 13 congregate sites throughout the county and for shut-ins through the Meals on Wheels program is only part of what HTC does for the community. Its main purpose is helping developmentally disabled adults in Stanislaus County.
Besides its culinary program, HTC has Production Unlimited and Community Employment vocational training programs. HTC also trains workers for landscape maintenance. For lower functioning disabled, day classes and services are offered.
Denham had a chance to tour the facility, where 288 adults receive services, before donning an apron and hairnet to dish out slices of lasagna on plastic trays. He joked that he might have just found a job "if the congressional thing doesn't work out." A job change is not likely happen in his immediate future given the results of a Public Opinion Strategies poll which showed Denham ahead of Democratic rival Michael Eggman by a margin of 57 to 33 percent. Denham and Eggman are opponents on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Strong told Denham that changes in minimum wage law threaten HTC as an employer. State legislation may force HTC to hire non-disabled workers, which defeats the purpose of the program to reach the disabled. The issue centers on HTC paying its clients a commensurate wage, which is a special minimum wage paid to a worker with a disability based on the worker's individual productivity, no matter how limited, in proportion to the wage and productivity of experienced nondisabled workers performing essentially the same type, quality, and quantity of work.
"If you're non-disabled and it takes you an hour, and I'm disabled and I do exactly the same job, exactly the same order, I get paid half of what you do because I can't produce it at the same rate. What they're trying to do with the new legislation they are forcing us to move toward a 50:50 ratio, so in my kitchen instead of having 30 differently abled adults, I'm going to have to have 15 differently abled and 15 non-disabled."
Chef Kayrin Coddington added that it's not just about pay. Clients working in her culinary program get social time and they feel wanted.
Rising wages could also affect some clients' Social Security payment and medical benefits.
"Anybody who thinks we're making a ton of money and we're taking advantage of the clients, come walk in our shoes for a while," Strong said.
"I've been here a few times to understand that," replied Denham, who suggested arranging an October meeting with state and county officials to address the issue.
Coddington explained that HTC is seeking to generate more revenue for the center by food catering events and renting out its Witmer Hall for civic club gatherings, business conferences and community events.
Denham learned that HTC is one of only a few organizations who accept clients with behavioral issues.
"There are prettier, fancier facilities," Strong told Denham, "but as I told you we're a behavior program. There's one thing about this facility; our clients can do most anything to it and they really can't hurt it so the cinder block walls are huge for us."
Denham walked through two buildings where severely disabled adults are given teaching opportunities. They include sight- and hearing-impaired adults who need personal assistance with toilet training and eating. HTC maintains an instructor to client ratio of 1:3.
"Even though you look in a classroom and it appears as though nothing is going on ... that is far from the truth. There is a plan for each one of the clients; it may be something as simple as every day you remind them how to wipe the table where they eat their lunch."
She added that the level of care and attention given the lower functioning adults is "phenomenal."
HTC's community integration facility is tasked with getting clients out in the community so they can learn.
"I see that as two-fold," said Strong. "The community learns not to be afraid of them and they learn how to function in the community."
Most clients get to HTC's three facilities by public transit, something which Strong said the Valley Mountain Regional Center does not fund enough of. She said some clients who live in Oakdale but work doing maintenance at the Westley I-5 rest stop have to start at 5 a.m. for a "long tour trip to get here to go work. So yeah, transportation is huge."
Some clients are trained on using public transit while some are given rides by parents.
If a bus is running late, HTC must pay overtime to the staff who oversees them because clients cannot be left alone.
The city of Ceres is in a three-year contract with HTC so clients can provide landscape maintenance of public rights of way. The city doesn't have the manpower to make sure that medians, planter strips and areas along sound walls are kept maintained and looking its best. So starting in 2008 the city has contracted with HTC to give developmentally disabled adults jobs raking and blowing and picking up trash, repair irrigation equipment, remove dead or dying plants, trim hedges, remove leaves and control rodents. The city pays HTC about $13,500 per month for the service.
"Contracting with Howard Training Center provides a significant community benefit to an important provider of social services located within Ceres," said Jeremy Damas, the city of Ceres' Deputy Public Works Director. "It gives (clients) job skills and life skills, it gives them work experience. It's a good program. It benefits everybody."
Placing developmentally disabled adults in retail and fast-food jobs is becoming more difficult, one staff member said, because most employers want a multi-faceted worker. Few are willing to hire someone to exclusively work in stock or clean dining areas.
Howard Training Center was created in 1950 by a group of eight parents concerned with promoting services for area children with developmental disabilities. In 1953, the group incorporated as a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to serving all citizens in Stanislaus County with developmental disabilities, regardless of age or severity of disability.