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After 47 years, Opportunity Builders can help disabled at its own headquarters in Millersville

March 08, 2009|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to The Baltimore Sun

For the parents of developmentally disabled adults, Opportunity Builders Inc. has been a place for their children to make friends, learn life skills and be productive.

The parents of children with mental retardation, autism and other disabilities, volunteered and donated money to keep the nonprofit going for the past 47 years, even rescuing it from closure in 1986 when the doors were padlocked because of unpaid bills.

Tomorrow, they get to celebrate a hard-fought milestone for OBI - the grand opening of its own 41,000-square-foot headquarters on 14.5 acres. The airy, sunlit building at 8855 Veterans Highway in Millersville replaces the leased facility in Hanover about 10 minutes away. After a 10 a.m. ribbon-cutting, OBI will be host to an open house from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article March 8 about the new headquarters for Opportunity Builders Inc., Pasadena-based Coffee News, owned by Tom and Angela Balsamo, was incorrectly identified.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

"It's been a big dream," said Ed Baumgardner, whose son Reed worked at OBI for 28 years before he died in 2001. "I've been on two different boards that had shelved [earlier plans]."

The adult development center helps those with severe disabilities learn how to live more independently and tackle small work projects, such as stuffing envelopes. Opportunity Builders also provides classes in reading, math and computers.

Parents, educators and disability advocates in Severna Park founded OBI in a church basement in 1962 as Sheltered Workshop of Anne Arundel County. After several moves, which included a fire hall, the organization moved to a 30,000-square-foot building in BWI Commerce Park in 1991.

It took OBI until 2004 to build up a $1.4 million cash reserve to move forward with the $9 million building project. OBI received nearly $3.3 million in state and county funding and took out a loan to pay for the rest. OBI has raised $800,000 in private donations in a $2 million fundraising campaign.

Construction began in November 2007, and OBI moved into the building in January. The new building is brighter than the older building because it allows more natural light through large windows and skylights. Gardiner & Gardiner General Contractors of Crofton used "green" building techniques, such as using shredded, recycled blue jeans as insulation. They also used recycled steel and put in a high-efficiency heating and cooling system.

The building is more user friendly for those in wheelchairs - hallways are wider and doors open automatically at the touch of a button.

The biggest benefit is that the building will allow OBI to accommodate an additional 100 developmentally disabled adults during the next five years. OBI serves 330 clients ages 21 to 65 nearly half of whom have jobs in the community, said Vicki Callahan, the executive director.

Each year, OBI gains about 20 more clients, and the old building no longer had enough room. The additional space in the new building not only means more clients, but it also means more work opportunities for them, Callahan said. She has invited former employers to stop by the open house to check out the larger warehouse.

Coffee House News, based in Pasadena, started using OBI about a year ago to distribute its two-page publication to coffee shops, restaurants, doctors' offices and other places with waiting areas. Every week, OBI clients drop off the publication and pick up the ones that were left behind. Then they count the returns to see how many they should deliver the following week.

"It's one of the best business decisions we ever made," said Balsamo, who co-owns the business with his wife, Angela Balsamo. "The job coaches are all extremely involved."

The Balsamos were so impressed by OBI that Angela Balsamo joined the board soon after their contract began.

Family members do not have to pay for OBI services, but parents such as Baumgardner often volunteer at the center. Despite his son's death, Baumgardner still drops by to help out when needed.

He and several other volunteers and parents spent Wednesday assembling patio tables and chairs for the picnic area at the rear of the building. Dan Fox, president of the OBI parents group, worked on tables, while his 37-year-old disabled daughter, Tracy, worked in another room.

"She has something to do every day," Fox said. "If she was home with us, she wouldn't be doing anything."

Jason Kouns, a client who works at OBI, said that is why he likes coming every day. He spends his time packaging Lock Laces, a type of shoelace lock for sneakers that prevents them from coming untied. OBI does all the warehousing, distribution and packaging of the Lock Laces for Glen Burnie-based Street Smart.

"It's better than just sitting at home, watching TV," said Kouns, a 34-year-old from Lansdowne.

OBI clients also gain a sense of accomplishment from what they do.

After working for a while, Kouns pointed to a box containing the packages. "I finished a whole box by myself in 20 minutes. I timed it."

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