story & photos by ARNO HOLSCHUH
REDWOODS UNITED LOVES VISITORS. Walk through the organization's cavernous production room and many of the workers look up from their task at hand to greet you. Some even go an extra step: Stop at Dan Morgan's table [photo at left] and his face breaks into a broad, disarming grin as he extends a hand.
"Hello, hello!" he calls, scooting his chair out to face you. "It's good to meet you. Great. Hello! How are you today?"
Morgan's demeanor makes it obvious how he is doing: Very, very well. He enjoys his work, like most of the 84 other developmentally disabled adults who work with or through Redwoods United. The tasks may be menial -- Morgan spends his day sorting used paper into white and colored so it can be shredded and recycled -- but as workers, they are valued.
One need only consider the alternatives: A life spent sitting on a couch in a group home, bereft of the camaraderie of their peers and of little use to society. For attaching labels to boxes of cookies or combining soil with seeds into grow-your-own-redwood kits, these individuals -- known within the organization as "consumers" -- earn a paycheck and the chance to share the day in good company. Fringe benefits include pride and dignity.
"We are the only agency in the area that provides this kind of large work-training program," said Rochelle Parkinson, Redwood United's executive director. [photo below right]
How frightening then that the private non-profit corporation came within a hair's breadth of closing this year. Just three months ago, it was unclear that Redwoods United would be able to pass its state inspection -- or even pay rent long enough to be inspected in the first place.
Redwoods United was started in 1971 at a small facility in Manila. The name came from its product: redwood planters assembled by developmentally disabled adults. Over the years the nonprofit agency grew in size and scope, adding the assembling of mass mailings to its services. In 1986 it outgrew its peninsula location and moved east to occupy two buildings in Arcata. More new services were added, like composting.
In 1997 Redwoods United made yet another move and expansion. This time its new space was a specially designed building in the Aldergrove industrial park on the northern edge of Arcata. The group had 7,000 square feet of room in which to work. Two years later, a new woodshop was completed. And there were other ventures -- a branch in Crescent City, for example. Consumers there were placed in food service positions at Pelican Bay state prison.
But all was not well. When the organization was inspected in August 1999, it received low marks in staff training, safety, accessibility and how it was dealing with its consumers. Fire drills weren't practiced with enough regularity; candidates for staff jobs weren't getting background checks; a list of consumers' rights was not posted in a public place.
The inspecting body, a private nonprofit group called the California Rehabilitation Accreditation Committee (CARF), gave Redwoods United one year to clean up its act. During that year the executive director of nine years left for a job with a larger organization in Chico.
That brought Parkinson into the shop. The Oregon native had been working at Heald Colleges in Salinas before she came to Arcata in August 2000. She quickly found out that she had better hit the ground running: The accreditation committee site survey was due just two months after her arrival. She said it seemed that she was the only one aware of the challenges the organization was facing.
"I read the 1999 [accreditation] survey and asked people what was being done to address the issues, and indeed nothing was being done." Of the 67 recommendations made in the survey, not one had been dealt with, she said.
Knowing that she would not be able to fix all the problems before a second survey in November 2000, Parkinson set about doing the next best thing. She formulated a plan that would have Redwoods United back on track within a year and threw herself on the mercy of the inspectors.
"When the [accreditation] surveyors came, I put the information on the table and told them what the plan was," she said.
In November she got word back that the agency had been approved for another year, until December 2001. But this time, there would no last-minute reprieve. It was sink or swim.
The first step was the accounting system. "When I came on board, I realized there were no internal controls," Parkinson said. The late Eureka City Councilman Jim Gupton, on Redwood United's Board of Directors, offered to resign his volunteer board post and come to work for the agency to help out. Parkinson agreed, and Gupton took over the task of overhauling the accounting system.
Then tragedy struck: On Jan. 25, 2001, Gupton died of a heart attack during a meeting at the Ericson Court facility. "We were reeling," Parkinson said.
Once again, Parkinson had to regroup. In March she hired two students from Humboldt State University, Deb Ewen and Carrie Moses, who became the core of her accreditation team.
"We worked day and night, addressing every single standard in the CARF manual," Parkinson said. "There are more than 300 standards and we worked through every single one. We rewrote our mission statement, our code of ethics and every policy and procedure. We moved equipment, we painted lines on the floor," she said. The accounting system was put in place. "It was intense."
Everybody understood that it wasn't just an issue of legal compliance, said Ewen, who works at Redwoods United as the lead rehabilitation counselor. There were real issues that needed to be addressed.
"Our work floor just wasn't safe," Ewen said. "There were things in the aisles that people could have tripped on if there had been a fire. We didn't have a system that kept track of how our consumers did or what their goals were. We couldn't even tell if the goals they were working toward were of their own choice," she said.
Ironically, even handicap accessibility was an issue. Many spaces in the building weren't wide enough for wheelchairs to get through.
And according to Parkinson, there were problems of "attitudinal accessibility" within the organization. Parkinson had to make sure her staff was as open to the consumers as possible.
"Are people comfortable? Are they able to tell you what their concerns are? Are the floor supervisors in touch with their needs? Or are we just getting products out the door?"
Parkinson led by example, moving the administrative offices to the ground floor so they would be accessible to people in wheelchairs. The offices had been physically accessible in their original location -- a wheelchair lift runs up the back stairs. But to Parkinson, that wasn't good enough.
"We serve a disabled population," she said. "It's not appropriate to have someone in a wheelchair come to your front door and say, `You have to go to the back door to get in.'"
"I think I left Redwood United in good shape," said Carl Ochsner in a telephone interview from his office in Chico. He is now the executive director of the Work Training Center, an organization similar to Redwoods United but more than six times as large. "I've been in 18 accreditation surveys, and sometimes you get a one-year," he said.
He ran the organization in the late '90s when it fell out of compliance with CARF standards but he says it wasn't his fault; the standards changed. He believes a philosophical shift took place within CARF that caught Redwoods United off guard.
"Over the '90s, there was more and more emphasis put on consumer [worker] choice" and that's a vague concept for the surveyors, he said.
"I feel accreditation should focus on measurable things. We get into trouble when they try for a philosophical approach," he said. "I will respectfully disagree when they go too far."
Parkinson, who did not criticize Ochsner directly, said the standards didn't seem vague to her. "It's very clear; the manual gets updated periodically and you have to know what's expected," she said. Before she came on board, she said the staff "hadn't looked at it."
"I looked at it and realized we were completely out of compliance," she said.
Even as Parkinson was running toward accreditation in 2001, there was another immediate problem nipping at her heels: rent.
"In December of 2000, I went to our landlord and told him we were in a mess. We didn't know how much money was going out or coming in, so I asked him for four months reprieve. He very graciously gave us four months to figure it out," she said.
But in March of last year things had gone from bad to worse. Investigations into the organization's financial records revealed that more money was in fact leaving than coming in.
"We were in financial crisis," Parkinson said. That crisis, she said, could be traced back to a couple of assumptions made in the 1990s.
In 1995 Redwoods United was still housed in two smaller locations in Arcata, one on South G Street and the other on Samoa Boulevard. The agency began to receive large grants from a federal program called Personal and Social Adjustment to be used to help the consumers phase out their work inside the building and into a job with an area business.
"PSA ... brought a lot of money in." With that money came high hopes and the decision was made to expand. A site was chosen in the Aldergrove industrial park.
In 1997, the year Redwood United moved, the PSA funding dropped dramatically. "The idea had been to provide PSA funding so that people who had a goal of being integrated into a community job could achieve it," Parkinson said. "That wasn't happening."
By then Redwoods United was in a location that cost $11,000 a month rent, five times as much as the Samoa Boulevard shop.
In 1999, financial prospects brightened; Redwoods United successfully bid on a contract to build 500 picnic tables for the state Department of Parks. The project had prestige and a big dollar sign attached to it. The tables were to be used at rest areas and parks around the state and would bring in $400,000. It was the perfect job for the newly remodeled woodshop -- or so it was assumed.
"Very lucrative. But the job costing was not done correctly and it ended up costing us a lot of money to make those picnic tables," Parkinson said. The tables were sold to the state for $318 but actually cost more than $400 to make -- not including overhead or transportation.
And they weren't easy to make. The consumers had trouble handling the wood because it was so heavy. Redwoods United had to hire nondisabled workers to finish the project. There were problems in quality control -- as a result, one of the last shipments in early 2001 had to be rebuilt at Redwood United's cost.
January 2002 should have been a happy time for Parkinson. While Redwood United's financial situation was in a shambles, in December it passed the CARF accreditation process with flying colors.
"We did it," she said. Not only did it receive the three-year accreditation, it was also awarded three commendations for exemplary performance.
But the ground was crumbling under Parkinson's feet. In the summer of 2001, the group found itself unable to pay anything on the back rent it owed and barely able to meet its monthly payment. Eventually, the landlord found another tenant for the Redwoods United space, Fire and Light, a company that turns used glass into high-end dinnerware and other products. A sheriff's deputy showed up at Redwoods United door Feb. 6 to inform it that it had a week to vacate the premises or be locked out.
But Parkinson wasn't done yet. She asked for and received one more extension from the landlord, this one until March 18. Tough decisions were being made that would return Redwoods United to fiscal stability. The Crescent City location would be closed. On Jan. 31 the board of directors also voted to close down the wood shop that had been Redwoods United's namesake. It was losing $8,000 a month.
On March 7, less than two weeks away from being physically evicted, Parkinson negotiated an agreement to move the office into the Arcata Economic Development Corp. facility, located just across the street. Redwoods United had a new home -- for the time being.
Much remains unclear. Where will the group go in September when it has to leave the AEDC? Where will the money come from? But for the time being, Parkinson is happy to have kept the wolf from the door and her agency afloat.
"Disabled people like to work. They're citizens of the community, and it is good for them to have a facility where they can have goals and then meet those goals. We provide a service and socialization for people who may otherwise just be at home sitting on the couch.
"It's a positive place to be."
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