Of the Baker City Herald

Gene Button may run a non-profit company that provides employment to 27 developmentally disabled people and 31 staffers.

But inside his chest beats the heart of an entrepreneur.

Button, executive director of Step Forward Activities, Inc., says he's always looking for andquot;the next big widget,andquot; something that his clients can manufacture or assemble or distribute out of its 10th Street facility.

He thinks he may have found it courtesy of a $95,000 grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust. That money will buy machinery that will enable Step Forward to refill inkjet printer cartridges at less than half the retail price.

andquot;You can buy an inkjet printer for under $100 these days, but when you go to replace the cartridge, it's between 45 and 80 dollars,andquot; he said. andquot;People have a heart attack when they see that. We can provide cartridges for less than half that.andquot;

To gain space for that business, he's giving up part of his current operation, one where his clients refill and rebuild toner cartridges. Step Forward doesn't have the space for both operations.

The operation isn't going far. Powder River Correctional Facility is constructing a 900-square-foot building inside its walls to house the toner cartridge program, which could be open as soon as spring. It will be staffed by inmates with developmental disabilities as defined by the Americans With Disabilities Act, and supervised by Step Forward staff.

andquot;If community organizations and social service agencies think they can rely forever on state or federal funding, they're lying to themselves,andquot; Button said. andquot;You've got to be entrepreneurial, always looking to the future. You've got to go out and create partners. The more partners you have, the more success you'll generate.andquot;

Step Forward's bottom line reflects that philosophy: 38 percent of its funding comes from the government. The rest about $1.5 million comes from the products it sells, along with about $123,000 in grant money this year.

State budget crisis spurs partnerships

The program services manager at PRCF, Don Williams, said the new facility will be staffed by inmates with such severe drug and alcohol problems that they're deemed disabled under the ADA. Williams said the new initiative will help both programs.

andquot;We've got a constitutional mandate that each inmate must work 40 hours a week,andquot; he said. andquot;Gene needed more money to support his group homes. In this budget cycle, with everyone taking a hit, this is a win-win situation. If we can help one of our partners, we want to do that.andquot;

Keep your eyes open

Button remembers speaking at a conference of social service providers in Yakima, Wash., where people were stumped for ideas how their facilities might make money. Button simply started ticking off some of the opportunities he'd seen during the drive up.

andquot;I wonder who cleans your sheltered bus stops? Who puts those little yellow buttons on the highway reflectors? Who's building the pallets I saw by the side of the road?andquot; he told the group. andquot;You can't keep driving through life with your eyes closed.andquot;

Consider some of Step Forward's past andquot;widgetsandquot;:

o The Oregon Department of Corrections needed a small laundry bag that could hold inmates' dirty clothes without the fear of bloodborne pathogens coming in contact with those inmates doing the laundry. The solution? A water-soluble bag supplied by Step Forward.

o United Parcel Service, of all companies, finds it cheaper to use Step Forward to help the shipping company stock and ship some of the inventory it uses at its Western facilities.

o In the fall of 1999 the height of the pumpkin leaf bag craze in America virtually every bag sold in the country came out of Step Forward's bag machine. andquot;We got so busy, we had to hire high school students,andquot; Button said.

The next big thing

To keep his $2.3 million operation going, though, Button and his staff of 30 is constantly seeking what might turn out to be andquot;the next big thing.andquot; Only, by state law, it's got to be something that can be manufactured 75 percent by people with disabilities.

People like 68-year-old Dorothy Graham.

andquot;I feel young working here,andquot; she says. andquot;This is the only job I can do, and I love it. Every month I cash my check, pay my bills, and then I treat myselfandquot; usually at an area restaurant.

andquot;She catches on fast, and she's very meticulous,andquot; said Jodie Sorensen, Step Forward's production supervisor. Graham works refurbishing toner cartridges, among other tasks.

That's a fraction of the work that goes on in the plant. The company assembles and markets its own first aid kit. Because many of the workers can't read, cardboard guides called andquot;boogie boardsandquot; have a picture of every item to be included in the kit.

A kit can't be shipped until every slot on the boogie board has something on it.

Knuckle bandages are also packaged and shipped out from Step Forward, in boxes of 50 or 100. Since most Step Forward clients would be hard-pressed to count that high, strips of electrician's tape laid across a table measure the correct length. Halfway across is a small box; all the way is a big box.

There are boogie boards for just about every task, including an outline of both left and right gloves and a guide for stuffing travel information sent out by Baker County Unlimited.

Clients are paid according to the prevailing wage for the task they're doing. If they're capable of keeping up, for example, half the productivity of a non-disabled worker, they're paid half the prevailing wage, Button said.

A philosophical switch

Step Forward began serving clients in Baker County in 1976, switching to the entrepreneurial model it still uses in 1991.

Before the switch, clients performed some of the more traditional tasks that developmentally disabled people often do: shoveling sidewalks, mowing lawns and the like. But with each new project that staff comes up with, clients learn new skills and strengthen their work ethic, Button says.

andquot;They want and deserve the opportunity, because they're productive people,andquot; Button said. andquot;They're a viable part of this community, and so is Step Forward. This isn't a little bitty company anymore. It's a company this community can be proud of.andquot;