Inspire of Central Florida is hard at work to help both businesses and those with special needs.
Inspire of Central Florida’s business model is simple: It partners with companies to outsource some of their tasks to local men and women with special needs. It saves the businesses time and money, and it gives the special-needs population a sense of normalcy, dignity, and self-worth. It’s a classic win-win. Throw in some life-skills development and training for independent living, and you could call Inspire’s Casselberry headquarters an epicenter of hope.
And today, Inspire’s future is more hopeful than ever before.
The organization has undergone a number of transformations since its inception in 1980 (then known as the Seminole Work Opportunity Program or SWOP). It opened in a tiny storefront in a Sanford strip mall and employed six special-needs individuals. It now welcomes nearly 100 individuals with physical and developmental disabilities every day.
Stephanie Ryan, Inspire’s executive director, took the reins in 2016 after serving as a board member for a year at the request of former Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger. A retired major at the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, Stephanie spent 35 years in law enforcement.
“I retired in May 2016, and in June they asked me to serve as the executive director here. They said, ‘Well... you’re not busy,’” Stephanie recalls with a laugh. “I told them I’d stay until they found someone who’s a good fit. And then I just fell in love. So here I am.”
Stephanie points out that some people are still not aware that SWOP is now Inspire. “We went through a new branding, but we’re still here,” she says.
The Great Recession of the late-2000s was not kind to Inspire. Funding challenges from Tallahassee and the sharp decline in
business activity nearly bankrupted the nonprofit organization, all while Inspire dealt with a number of staff departures and leadership changes.
“We’ve since hired some amazing new staff members, so this is really a clean slate,” says Stephanie. “A fresh start.”
Double the Service, Double the Fun
There are two facets to the organization: the hands-on work and the life-skills training.
On the production side, companies contract with Inspire for bulk mailings, packaging, labeling, and light assembly projects. Inspire’s special-needs team members – called specialists – range in age from 22 to 70. They perform the tasks using fine motor skills and attention to detail. For their efforts, specialists receive a real paycheck and a genuine sense of accomplishment. The specialists’ family members often say the trip to the bank to cash the check gives their special-needs relatives an indescribable feeling of pride.
Harrette Thompson, who’s been with Inspire for 32 years, is the production floor supervisor. She oversees the other supervisors (there’s a ratio of one supervisor to every 10 specialists) and trains the specialists for each job with practice materials. Once they master the skill, they begin the contract work. Harrette evaluates the finished products, monitors the specialists’ progress, and encourages them.
One recent job involved filling plastic tubes with bubblegum balls for eventual retail packaging.
“They loved working on that contract,” says Harrette. “They love wearing their Inspire aprons. They show a real pride in their work.”
Harrette is kind and patient and constantly proud of the work Inspire’s specialists do.
“The quality control is phenomenal,” says Stephanie. “The work is meticulously executed.”
The second part of Inspire’s program is training for independent living. Specialists learn how to make a bed, sort and fold clothes, operate a washing machine, and count and use money.
“A lot of the things we take for granted are difficult tasks,” says Harrette. “We’ve had specialists who weren’t interested in learning new skills, but once they see their peers getting involved, they want to do it. They are very proud of themselves when they master a certain skill.”
Social skills are also practiced. Especially popular are Inspire’s art and dance classes, which encourage creativity
About 25 percent of Inspire’s specialists are considered high-functioning, and they can choose to participate in Operation GROW, a local internship program. Inspire interns volunteer at organizations like The Sharing Center, Goodwill, and local churches. This affords them real-world work experience. They also operate the Inspire Your Day Café at the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office Public Safety Building. Participants in the GROW program run the café, which is open to the public and offers prepackaged food and drinks on weekday mornings. Interns perform all the required tasks at the café, from greeting customers and ringing up sales to cleaning tables. A coach is always there to assist.
Gabe, an Operation GROW intern, never misses a chance to introduce himself.
“My name is Gabe, I work for Inspire, and I love it here,” he says. “I’ve been working here since February. I like the variety of work. Every day is something different, and I like the people around here.”
To practice for work in the café, some specialists sell snacks to their peers on the Inspire production floor using a rolling practice cart.
“They really get a kick out of that,” says Harrette.
Inspire has a great relationship with the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, which is only enhanced with Stephanie at the helm.
“Sheriff Dennis Lemma brings all his new recruits here,” says Stephanie. “They take a tour, and they sit at the table and work on the contracts with the specialists.”
Specialists who are able also work in Inspire’s wood shop to cut rebar and wooden stakes. Gabriel Dominguez, who manages the wood shop, trains and supervises the crew, some of whom have worked there for more than a decade.
“All of the equipment is what you would find in a normal shop,” Gabriel explains.
The final products are counted, bundled, and shipped to construction companies and other businesses.
At Inspire, the focus is on ability, not disability.
“You cannot have a bad day here,” says Stephanie. “Everyone is happy to be at work. How many places are like that? They love to demonstrate that they’re capable of a lot more than some folks think.”
You Can Be Inspired, Too!
Could your business use Inspire’s help? The organization is always looking for more work, and Inspire is actively expanding.
Inspire also offers the use of its conference room, for free, to any community group. The only requirement is that guests take a tour of the Inspire facility to see the awesome work happening there.
Inspire is also planning to renovate a large space upstairs where it can provide an improved 1:5 ratio of supervisors to specialists.
“Nobody else is doing this in Seminole County,” says Stephanie. “Some of the individuals who are in the current 1:10 program would be better suited in a 1:5 setting. There, we will be able to focus more on skills training, independence, and personal success training.”
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