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DonMichael Green can’t remember when the accident happened. He pauses two beats and comes up empty.
“That’s a big question mark for me,” says Green, who goes by the nickname Duke. “I honestly have no idea.”
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The 28-year-old knows doctors removed much of his skull after he was hit by a van on his first day at a new job. The damage to his cognition and memory hasn’t healed in the eight years since: Now he remembers only patchwork scraps of his past, and he’s slow to recall where and with whom he lives.
Yet life goes on. And now he has a job.
Green is an employee and client of Life Experiences, a local nonprofit that for 38 years has employed people with intellectual disabilities, autism, communication challenges and other handicaps.
“We all need a motivator to get us up in the morning, and at the end of the day we all need something to be proud of – a difference they made,” says Mary Madenspacher, the group’s director and one of seven full-time staffers. “It’s not adult daycare. It’s work. It’s real.”
With its shoestring budget, Life Experiences provides a place where 49 people with profound mental and physical handicaps can socialize and do simple labor. The employee-clients earn between $10 and $50 a week to bake desserts, do laundry, bag dog treats and bundle airline cutlery for companies large and small. (The clients and their guardians decide how much they’ll work.)
The pay is below minimum wage, as allowed by long-standing federal laws meant to encourage the employment of disabled people.
Madenspacher doesn’t expect Life Experiences to pay living wages. In fact, her clients’ guardians or caretakers pay hundreds of dollars per month to support the program. The nonprofit also depends on donations to supplement its fees and business contracts.
More than a workplace, Madenspacher sees the nonprofit’s 10,000-square-foot Cary facility as a shelter for clients, and a place to find both purpose and stability. Her employees seem to agree – those capable of conversation happily list their duties and their friends at Life Experiences.
“I’m happy. I’m not alone,” says Sam Hodgin, 19, leaning on his crutches.
“We like to get paid,” says Willis Moore, who spends his money on Diet Coke and Mello Yello, candy for a coworker on Valentine’s Day and tuition for summer camp. At 51, he’s among the oldest of the crew.
“For some people, this is their career. Some will always need support throughout their lives,” Madenspacher says. But “for some people, this is their first stepping stone.”
Several clients have left the sheltered workshop for employment at grocery and retail stores and other “integrated” environments that may unlock more of their potential, according to some advocates for disability rights.
Other Life Experiences employees pass subtler milestones, such as getting in the front door without incident.
“You have to learn to cherish the small steps,” Madenspacher says.
As for Green, he has come a long way since his two-week coma, and his mother attributes some of his cognitive improvement to his time at Life Experiences and Learning Services of Durham.
“He had to learn how to talk, walk, even go to the bathroom. He had to learn everything over,” says Donna Green-Long. “They weren’t expecting him to make it at all.”
It’s not clear if or when her son will move on to another job from Life Experiences, but he’s setting his own goals now.
“I’m trying to finally get off some of these meds,” he says. And he’s hoping to return to an old hobby: “I used to make pizza,” he says.