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Center of success: Texarkana facility for disabled workers grows under director Ross Parker.

LIKE THE OLD CASKET COMpany that was serving as its home as recently as 10 years ago, the Texarkana Work Center hardly received much notice.

Some Texarkana residents now well aware of the facility might admit that 10-15 years ago they didn't know it existed.

Others may have viewed it simply as a place giving the physically and developmentally handicapped something to do.

However, workers at the growing Texarkana center apparently aren't just going through the motions of developing job skills. And the business community is noticing.

Last spring the facility, one of 25 sheltered work-training facilities in Arkansas, received the Small Business Administrator's Award of Excellence as a small-business contractor. It was the only Arkansas small business so honored.

"It means we came in on time and on price with small business contracts," says Ross Parker, executive director of the center. "This award is for any business. We just happen to be a handicap training center. We were very excited about it."

Parker, who came aboard in 1980, took the center from six employees, 25 disabled workers and an operating budget of $150,000 the first year to a staff of 20, 100 disabled workers and a budget of more than $1 million.

And Parker moved the center out of the old casket factory in 1983, thanks to a $200,000, 3 percent interest loan from the Small Business Administration. Now, the center occupies 12,000 SF in the Maxwell Industrial Park.

The move to a new facility was Parker's second goal when he took over as executive director. The first was to seek some industrial jobs for the workers.

"We definitely needed a better image," he says. "It was hard to sell our abilities in a casket factory where we made rags and candles."

The center is contracted with 15-20 industries, Parker says, inspecting and screening products, packaging and repackaging. It has a custodial crew that handles the city's post office.

Those sample bottles of soap and shampoo that often arrive in everyone's mail? The work center has a contract to fill and label some of them.

A job with Lone Star Army Ammunitions Plant led to the Award of Excellence.

Lone Star, a division of Day and Zimmerman Inc. on the Texas side of town, received parts from another company that didn't meet specifications. Parker entered the picture, offering to have his workers check, screen and clean the incoming parts, saving Lone Star money to ship them back.

The job was so successful that Day and Zimmerman nominated the work center for the award. The center was a national region finalist.

Unique Work

It's safe to assume that such work is unusual for sheltered work-training facilities, says Linda Rice, public information director of the SBA.

"I thought it was kind of unique that they were working for an ammunitions company," she says. "When you think about ammunitions, what could they do that wouldn't be security clearance or hazardous to the public using it? But there is no problem with that.

"I thought it's a tribute to Ross Parker that he could see they could do these kinds of things and that Day and Zimmerman would allow them to try. It saved money for the client as well as bringing money in. It's a win-win situation for everybody."

Robert "Swede" Lee, president of the Texarkana Chamber of Commerce, says the organization has been very aware of the work center under Parker's direction.

"I think it provides for the community something from a work-training standpoint, and they provide a lot of work that's good for business and good for their program," Lee says.

The center maintains the chamber's "photographers' island" in front of the post office, Lee says.

Parker, who obtained a psychology degree from what is now the University of North Texas in Denton, had operated three small businesses. He saw the opportunity to combine the resources of his business background and psychology study in working with the handicapped.

He worked at a facility at Lufkin, Texas, before moving to Texarkana.

Facilities like Texarkana's are "sheltered" from Department of Labor regulations, particularly with paying minimum wage. As a worker develops skills, he moves closer to a regular wage. The work center provides classes in money management, dress, filling out job applications and the like. Vans provide workers transportation to the facility.
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Title Annotation:Texarkana Work Center
Author:Harris, Jim
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:Company Profile
Date:Jan 18, 1993
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