Waupaca County Industries (WCI) in Manawa is working to create opportunities that will build skills for their members.
In turn, it helps them with the transition from the facility and into jobs within area communities.
“We decided to take the vending machines out of our break room,” said Hannah Lamers, a Transition Specialist for WCI. “We thought we would try something new. So we replaced it with a store, where everyone can still purchase the items they want.”
“We talked about the idea at a meeting in Wisconsin Rapids with the Opportunities Development Center (ODC),” Gene Ruppert said. “The idea was passed on and we got the ball rolling here.”
Four members; Cody Krabbe, Jay Preuss, Joyce Blank and DJ Prestein, have been involved from the beginning to get the store off the ground. Robert Hoekstra has recently joined the team. They were even included in giving the store its name.
The Stepping Stone, a company store, has been up and running since April 7.
The name, chosen as it represents the path members will take into their new life outside of WCI.
“The Stepping Stone really compliments our services here,” Ruppert said.
“It is for our members and is run by members,” he said. “It will teach them how to deal with people and how to handle cash. There are so many things they can learn for their benefit.”
“It is important to know that it is member driven,” Lamers said. “The members’ opinions on what to do and how to do them make a difference.”
The members proudly speak about all the steps they had to go through for the store to open.
“We went to the court house and then to the board of directors,” said Joyce Blank. “It was a little scary.”
“We had to dress up,” said Jay Preuss.
After getting approval even more work had to be done.
Both Blank and Preuss were busy making posters to advertise their new venture throughout the building.
“We even hung posters in the bathrooms,” said Preuss, laughing.
After doing some comparison shopping at places like Sam’s Club, Piggly Wiggly, Woodman’s and Fleet Farm, it was decided where to get the best buys for the items they needed.
Once everything was in place, The Stepping Stone opened.
The store is open four days a week, with two members assigned to a store each day. One staff person is always there to offer assistance if it is needed.
All the members seem to be enjoying their new venture.
“I like working,” Blank said. “It gets me out of production for awhile.”
“I’m excited about it,” Robert Hoekstra said. “It gives us the chance to do something different and meet new people.”
“The vending machines were hard to use,” Preuss said. “This is so much easier and you don’t have to wait so long.”
Hoekstra, Blank and Preuss quickly agree that counting money is the hardest part. For some, it is their first time handling money.
“Counting change is the hardest part,” Blank said.
“It takes us a little time to count, but we can do it,” Preuss said.
To make things easier a large poster hangs right outside the door, with pictures not only of the items you can purchase, but also the coins and dollars bills needed to buy them.
All are learning how to use a cash register, to stock shelves and keep track of inventory as well.
Preuss is quick to point out that they always check the dates on the items they sell.
“We gotta make sure we sell stuff before it expires,” Preuss said. “We make sure to keep the older dates to the front.”
There is no doubt that the members find this to be a rewarding adventure.
The staff members that help them out could not agree more.
“The member’s just beam when they are there,” said Brandi Marquard, rehabilitation support trainer. “They do so well.”
“Not one of them has stumbled,” added Sonda Koplien, who also is a rehabilitation support trainer.
“It’s cool to see them working with their co-workers,” said Sarah Wildes, who is a job coach. “They really help each other out.”
“The whole idea is using this as a step forward to community employment,” Lamers said.
“This will help members make that transition,” Ruppert said. “In most cases, the families want their sons and daughters out in the community.”
It’s not unusual to see the members waiting outside the store when it is there time to work.
“We expect them to be on time,” Marquard said. “We expect them to be role models.”
“I wanted something that was rewarding and meaningful,” Koplien said. “I don’t think there is any other job where you can go to and see a smiling face every day.”
“There is constant change and growth,” Ruppert said. “There is a new story every day.”
The hope is that one day they will be able to expand the size of The Stepping Stone, within the facility, to make it more like a grocery store.
“We would like to add more healthy food choices,” Lamers said. “Eventually maybe some clothing items and hats with the WCI logo on it.”
They may even try to expand to the court house.
But for now, the members are happy right where they are.
Any profits made at The Stepping Stone goes right back to the members for things like the Christmas party and annual picnic.
Waupaca County In
dustries is a sheltered workshop that serves disabled individuals.
WCI, located in Manawa, is a progressive organization that supports people with special needs, while building their dignity.