Unique partnership improves quality of life for disabled residents

In some ways, The Tribble Center in Seneca, S.C., is a typical warehouse: boxes packed for shipping, work tables full of men and women constructing electronic measurement instruments, surrounded by wires, screwdrivers and tape measures.

Yet, the center, which provides services for people with intellectual disabilities, is much more.

Stepping through the crowd in the warehouse, Day Program Manager Donna Thompson starts rattling off names. There’s Mona, who moved in with her sister in Upstate South Carolina after their mother’s death.  “She just fell in love with coming to work,” Thompson said. “She told her sister, ‘We have to stay here. This is my job. This is my work.’”

There’s Joseph, whose smile is as vibrant as sunlight shining through the windows. “He’s very diligent at his job,” Thompson said. “He loves to work. But he really looks forward to party time, and the holidays. He starts in November, carrying his Santa list. He’s always ready with that list in his pocket.”

And there’s Terrance, who rattles off facts and figures at a rapid pace. Thompson glows, her hands together, as if in prayer. “His memory is phenomenal. He can remember things, people from 20 years ago. He never forgets anything, the good and the bad.”

More than just a job

The Tribble Center sits off South Carolina Rte. 188, near downtown Seneca and a stone’s throw from Lake Keowee, in the rolling hills of South Carolina’s upstate. The center exists to serve “persons with disabilities and their families” to help them “experience a higher quality of life.” That’s it in a nutshell purpose, words on a brochure or a webpage.

Those words, however noble, are inadequate. The Tribble Center, its staff and guests, is much more.

To some, it’s home. Donna Thompson certainly sees it that way. She’s spent most of her life working at the Tribble Center, 37 years. To Jerry Mize and the people on his staff, it’s a calling. As executive director, he is responsible for budgets and planning, working with the board of directors to implement its vision. But most importantly are the 175 people at the Tribble Center who receive services, from assistance in leading independent lives to residential services to vocational training.

And that’s where people like Mona Callahan, Joseph Gibson and Terrance Simpson come in. They are among the 109 who come here five days a week to work.

A willing partner

“Most of our clients can be productive, so we made a decision to find businesses to partner with and go out and get our people some work,” Thompson said. “Jerry Mize and I started out in the early 1980s, just pounding the pavement, going into the local businesses. We had to sell our people and their abilities to give them an opportunity.”

They found a willing partner in Duke Energy’s Oconee Nuclear Station.

“Back then, I honestly didn’t know if it would work,” Thompson said.

It has, and it is. Today, the partnership between the Tribble Center and Oconee Nuclear Station is a strong one, lasting more than 25 years. Each year, Tribble Center clients produce 25,000 smears (discs of filter paper) for the plant, which are used to monitor radiation levels on equipment, and 10,000 air filters — all by hand.

The partnership is a financial boon to the Tribble Center, too. In the past year, the center brought in $211,000 from its contracts with companies like Duke Energy — and $195,000 went directly to Tribble Center clients.

The financial boon is secondary. People with intellectual disabilities, according to a study published in the Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, are unemployed at a rate as much as four times higher than that of the general population. They are less likely to have social interaction and participate in leisure activities.

Developing skills

That’s not the case for Tribble Center clients. In addition to their work (Duke Energy is one of the organization’s four business partners) residents participate in arts and crafts, manage a catering business and enjoy outings to places like the World of Energy, Oconee Nuclear Station’s education center, among other activities. 

Among those activities was the Tribble Center’s participation in the World of Energy’s fourth annual Festival of Trees. Each year, the education center provides pre-lit Christmas trees and invites local organizations to decorate them for display throughout the month of December. Visitors to the World of Energy voted on their favorite, with the top three receiving a portion of $2,250 in grant funding from Duke Energy. Twenty-one organizations sponsored trees, and nearly 1,400 votes were cast. The Tribble Center’s tree won second prize and a $750 donation from Duke Energy.

“Our clients worked hard making decorations and decorating the tree, and felt a great sense of accomplishment to come in second place while securing these funds for the Tribble Center,” said Roseanne Weber, After Hours Activities Coordinator for the Tribble Center. “Being a part of this festival added a sense of pride and acceptance in the community that is so important to their well-being and self-confidence.”

Activities like the Festival of Trees, along with going out to the movies, shopping at the grocery store, “those little things that you or I forget about, that we take for granted, they truly appreciate,” Thompson said.

Work therapy is just one aspect of a comprehensive approach to rehabilitation. The approach includes activities outside of the Tribble Center, such as the dozens of trips its clients took to visit their tree at the World of Energy.

“Our focus is to try to get them out into the world with the support they need to be successful,” Thompson said. “There is a lot of emphasis on coming into work, and now they have work skills they didn’t have.”

 Thompson obliges dozens of requests for hugs, and listens to stories about football games and songs on the radio. She smiles, the portrait of patience, practiced every day for nearly 40 years.

“The one thing that I love to see is someone who succeeds,” Thompson said. “It may be a job, it may be tying their shoe or going on their first outing. To see that excitement? That never gets old.

 “Sometimes when you are having a bad day, you walk in one of those workshops, they tell you they love you, I just love that.”

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