BAWAC flips the script on expectations for NKY adults with disabilities

Steve Stricker and his BAWAC staff and supporters are experts at flipping the script.
The script says the services the Florence-based nonprofit provides for adults with disabilities is a form of charity that the larger community owes to those less fortunate. Instead BAWAC treats its clients as productive members of society who contribute to — not take from — the local economy.
The script says adults with disabilities are difficult to employ and can’t or won’t stick with jobs when the going gets tough. Stricker says BAWAC focuses on what its clients can do instead of what they can’t do and supports them through their full working lives.
The script also says nonprofits like BAWAC that depend on government funding and philanthropy must do more with less. Instead BAWAC is generating direct revenue through manufacturing subcontracting work for area businesses that accounts for 8 percent of the organization’s total revenue and continues to increase.
It’s not the kind of approach you’d expect from an organization that formed in 1973 as a unit of the Northern Kentucky Mental Health-Mental Retardation Regional Board or from a Director of Operations who spent much of his career managing corporate technology.
BAWAC was spun off from local government into an independent 501c3 organization in 1975 and established its offices and warehouse at the Northern Kentucky Industrial Park in Florence. Once known as the Boone Area Work Adjustment Center, it now simply goes by BAWAC (pronounced BAY-wack).
Stricker is keen to explain how BAWAC focuses on its clients’ abilities instead of their disabilities, a theme that was planted in him at an early age. His first job out of college, the only job he could find at the time, was at a rehabilitation facility in Illinois, where a contract to produce the state’s license plates changed everything.
“We were in a town near the state capital of Springfield, and they decided to bring that work back to the state and we got the contract,” he says. “All of a sudden 90 percent of our revenue became self-driven, and that really improved the conditions and prospects for all of our people.”
Stricker eventually embarked on a computer technology career, but after 20 years or so he wanted to do something more meaningful and remembered his first job. He got back into the rehabilitation field, then joined BAWAC four years ago.
He feels that his years in “corporate America” gave him a good perspective on the value and meaning of work and on priorities.
“Our people want to work for the same reason we all want to work,” he says. “A job and income give you a measure of self-respect and self-worth that lead to growth and fulfillment, and for our people this might be the first time they’ve been able to support themselves. My favorite day here is the day after payday, when folks come in wearing new shoes they bought with their own money or tell me, ‘I took my mom out to dinner last night and I paid.’”
BAWAC employees 'do more for me than I do for them'
Adults with disabilities are referred to BAWAC from the Kentucky Office of Vocational Rehabilitation and from the Adult Targeted Case Management Program in Kentucky’s Cabinet for Family Health and Services. BAWAC staff performs an initial job skills assessment.
“It’s easy to see what someone with a mental or physical disability can’t do,” Stricker says, “but what can they do? We focus on what they can do and what they want to do and try to find a good job match for them. We want to set them up for success, not failure.”
BAWAC places 50-60 adults in outside employment each year, both at large NKY companies like DHL and Amazon and at small family-owned businesses like Buffalo Bob’s Family Restaurant. But nothing is guaranteed to the adults — they have to interview to get a job and then perform well enough to keep it.
“The people we’ve had working at the restaurant have been amazing workers, better than some of my non-disabled staff,” says Buffalo Bob’s owner Bob Luehrmann, who’s employed eight BAWAC clients over the past 10 years. “They want to do a good job and keep their job, they come on time, they listen, they do their job right every time. It’s been a great experience for me. Those employees honestly do more for me than I do for them.”
Stricker says BAWAC puts a lot of time into preparing clients for those job opportunities. Many are young adults who are eligible and ready for their first jobs but lack an awareness of workplace expectations and protocol. Others are older adults who perhaps didn’t do well in previous job situations and need “work hardening” training to focus on specific skills.
“We help our people prepare for getting a job by teaching them how and where to find jobs, like newspapers and websites,” Stricker says. “We’ll do mock interviews and generally prep them for the interview because we know they’ll be nervous. There have even been times we took them out shopping for new clothes for the interview.”
And BAWAC doesn’t wash its hands of clients once they’re employed. They’ll be admitted back into “work hardening” training if the job doesn’t work out or if they’re interested in trying a different career or skill. Stricker says the relationship is “for life.”
A second group of clients work in BAWAC’s warehouse space in the back of its 40,000-square-foot facility. They do subcontract assignments for 40-plus area companies outsourcing light industrial work like packaging, labeling and sorting.
About 100 clients are employed in the BAWAC warehouse, compared to 150 who are working in outside jobs at any one time. They buzz around a hive of assembly lines, stacks of boxes and products, forklifts and loading and unloading trucks.
“Unemployment in Boone County is around 3 percent now, so it’s difficult for some of these companies to find workers,” Stricker says. “Plus they might be at capacity at their current facility and just need a little help with overload demand. So we’re a good partner that can handle some of that overload for them at our place.”
Subcontract work generated $206,500 in revenue for BAWAC in 2014 out of total revenue of $2.5 million, or 8 percent. Stricker says he’s getting more inquiries all the time from local companies that hear about BAWAC’s capacity and quality workmanship.
'They give back and contribute'
BAWAC receives most of its funding from state and federal government programs as well as dedicated Developmental and Intellectual Disabled tax revenue from Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties. Contributions and donations bring in just 6 percent of total revenue, half of which is provided by United Way of Greater Cincinnati.
Grateful for the support, Stricker would rather focus on what BAWAC provides to Northern Kentucky than what the organization asks for in return.
“Our people contribute to society and add value to their community by paying taxes on their income and spending their income at local businesses,” he says. “They’re not a drain on society. They give back and contribute.”
BAWAC prepares its clients to be solid citizens and consumers by focusing on much more than just job training.
“We take a holistic approach to helping our people,” Stricker says. “Not just job training, but their transportation, workplace behavior and overall life skills. For many of them, this is their first adult job and their first paychecks, so we help them learn how to spend their money at stores, how to discern a good deal from a bad deal, how to order at a restaurant. That’s the ‘habilitation’ part of rehabilitation.”
“Like a lot of people, I hadn’t really been socially active with disabled people before getting involved with BAWAC,” Luehrmann says. “But now, after 10 years, I will employ them as long as I have a restaurant. They’ll always be in my life.”
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