At nonprofit Frankfort Habilitation/Independent Opportunities, the more than 40 clients who work there are not seen for their disabilities — they are seen as family members.
“I mean it, we are a true family,” said Monte Wilson, a production worker with Frankfort Habilitation.
Wilson, who had to have his left leg reconstructed following a car accident in the early 2000s, is one of six production workers at Frankfort Habilitation, and he has no intention of leaving.
“Nobody else would hire me,” Wilson said. “They brought me in, and I appreciate it.”
The clients, Wilson said, are the focus of the company, which does packaging, small-job assembly, labeling, sorting and a variety of other work in its factory. Since it opened in 1972, both current and past clients of Frankfort Habilitation have had disabilities ranging from the autism spectrum to communication disorders and deafness.
But one of the dynamics that makes Frankfort Habilitation work is that everyone is treated with humanity, said Production Supervisor Michael Hood, who has been with the company for nearly three decades.
That goes both ways, he said.
“Working with this population, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you are,” Hood said. “They accept you for the way you are.”
One of Frankfort Habilitation’s primary goals, Hood said, is to help teach clients work skills, which can mean demonstrating how to punch time cards and communicating with co-workers to more hands-on skills like operating machinery.
Again, these clients are seen as extensions of staff members’ own families, said Program Supervisor Marsha Smither, a 15-year employee.
“We spend eight hours a day with them, Monday through Friday, so we’re with them more than we’re actually with our families, pretty much,” Smither said. “We try to make everyone here feel like they are a part of our family because a lot of them live in residential programs, so they don’t have those families that are there continuously.”
Many times, she said, people would have no idea the clients even had a disability should you see them out and about on a typical day. In age, they range from teens to mid-70s, one of whom who plans to work there until he is 85, Smither said.
One client has been there for more than 40 years, and another not far behind.
“You would think they were the boss,” Smither said.
In addition to the assembly and packaging work, Frankfort Habilitation also manages a pamphlet library, which is printed by the state and then delivered to Frankfort Habilitation for further distribution across the state. So, an informational pamphlet in the doctor’s office about diabetes or the Quit Now smoking cessation program could have come from Frankfort Habilitation.
A lesser known part of the company is its greenhouse, which is open to the public Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“(Clients) do a lot of the work down there, anywhere from filling pots to planting the plants and taking care of them,” Hood said.
While Hood and Smither both stressed how their clients are treated as equals in the workplace, they also noted it does not always work that way in the real world.
One day, Hood recalled, they were with a group that had taken a trolley ride to downtown Frankfort, and a woman stated that she wasn’t going to ride with “these people,” before getting off the trolley.
Despite a pervasive stigma, they said, both have raised their own children to treat those with disabilities as they would any other person. As for Frankfort Habilitation, Smither said, its hope is to continue serving the community and promoting an environment that defeats that stigma.
“(We want) to give the opportunity to people with disabilities to feel like they work in a normal society, because there’s not a lot of companies here in Frankfort that offer those opportunities for individuals with disabilities to go to work for them,” Smither said. “I know we have a few … but there’s not a lot.”
Though Frankfort Habilitation could not legally provide the names of companies it serves, many of the businesses are based in Franklin and surrounding counties.