Washing away that jobless feeling Car wash gives work and hope to mentally disabled

July 18, 1993|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Staff Writer

Wielding a high-powered car vacuum with the dexterity of a seasoned pro, 33-year-old Bridget Fitzhenry was adjusting to her first day at the Great American Car Wash with ease.

Ms. Fitzhenry could hardly contain her enthusiasm for the work. As soon as a car entered the lot off Ritchie Highway, she'd flag it down, motioning toward her bay.

"It's great," she said of her new job vacuuming car mats, floors and upholstery.

The car wash opened Friday, but Ms. Fitzhenry was among a group of 11 new employees, each of them mentally disabled, being taught the ropes during a five-hour training session Thursday.

Laid off in December from a $5-an-hour cleaning job at Fair Lanes Bowling Center in Glen Burnie, Ms. Fitzhenry, who lives in Glen Burnie, had hoped for months to land another community-based job that paid a decent wage.

"I'm getting married in August; I need to save money," she said.

Like many other mentally disabled adults in the county, she seemed to have only one other option -- piecework at Baldwin Industries, a sheltered workshop for the mentally disabled in Arnold.

Collating papers all day was boring and did not pay much, she said. Even though she was one of the fastest workers at Baldwin, she made only half of what she made at the bowling alley.

But starting Friday, she was making $4.50 an hour vacuuming cars and helping with other tasks at the full-service car wash.

"I'm gonna start saving for my wedding dress," she said.

Jean Kearney, a job developer for Providence Employment Services, where Ms. Fitzhenry is a client, said the employment offer from the new owners of the Great American Car Wash is the largest placement for clients she has ever gotten.

"These guys have bent over backward for us," she said of co-owners Richard E. Hug and Clark D. Porter, who agreed to hire 11 clients, many of whom had been out of work six months to a year.

Mr. Porter, president and general manager, said the car wash will employ about 60 people. He and Mr. Hug decided to hire so many Providence clients because they thought the car wash had many jobs they could handle, including vacuuming, toweling cars dry, washing towels in the laundry and doing janitorial work.

"We believe in giving them a chance," said Mr. Porter, a Stevensville resident. "We think it'll work out just fine."

"They are very good workers, very reliable," said Mr. Hug, who once served on the governor-appointed Chief Executive Officers' Council for the employment of the disabled. He also worked with state officials in the mid-1980s to bring federal money to the state to support employment of the disabled. "The trick is getting the proper training and putting them in the right job."

Although job placement for the mentally disabled has picked up a little in recent months, Ms. Kearney said, it continues to be affected by the economic downturn that has dried up many of the entry-level positions her clients used to depend upon.

zTC Early in the year, Providence Employment Services, which serves all of Anne Arundel County, was placing only one or two clients a month in new jobs. In 1992 during the same months, the agency placed more than a dozen a month.

In May and June, the agency placed eight clients total -- a slight improvement -- and then 11 in July at the car wash. Still, more than 30 "job-ready" clients wait for community-based employment, Ms. Kearney said.

"Many of them have been waiting a long time," she added, pointing to clients who had worked at fast-food chains, retail stores and in offices. Eight of the 11 had been employed in the community before. Three of the new employees at the car wash were on their first community-based job.

And they were loving it.

Jerry Doyle, 37, institutionalized in a state hospital most of his life, became a client at Providence Employment last year, said his job coach, Keith Jackson. Although Mr. Doyle was withdrawn and lacked motivation when he arrived, a year of employment training turned things around, Mr. Jackson said.

"Jerry belongs here in the community in a job," he said. "A year ago, we thought he'd never be able to work. But I think he's going to do just fine."

"This is all right," said Mr. Doyle, proudly announcing he had already helped wash five cars.

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