Create-a-job program serving disabled threatened: Federal funding cuts could mean early end for options available through customized employment initiative

Bryan Ballard and Cody Feldman never dreamed they’d end up here, soaking up the sun along Indianapolis’ downtown canal, peddling frozen treats from their very own ice cream cart.

They certainly never planned to become business partners when they met as adolescents playing Special Olympics basketball. But it happened anyway, thanks to a federally funded program intended to help significantly disabled individuals find work that fits their interests and skills.

What makes the so-called customizedemployment effort unusual is its emphasis on finding non-traditional solutions to employment obstacles. Rather than identify existing positions that may or may not work for a particular client, job coaches look for a perfect fit-even if that means starting a business from scratch.

Funded with what was billed as a fiveyear, $3-million-plus grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, Indianapolis’ customized employment program has served 115 disabled clients since October 2002.

In addition to paying for specialized employment counselors, the money has been used to underwrite startup costs. For example, the program paid about $6,000 to help Feldman and Ballard buy an ice cream cart and inventory for their business: Brody’s on the Canal.

But federal budget reductions are cutting the program short by a year-and about $1 million. Without a new source of revenue, the success stories could end.

“We were expected to build a sustainability plan as we progressed with the project,” said Bruce Schnaith, director of employment and technology at Easter Seals Crossroads, one of the local agencies collaborating on the program. “The challenge we’re facing is that we have to do it now, right away, instead of having that year to identify alternate funding options.”

Such is the danger of relying on notoriously unstable government support. Just ask Noble of Indiana CEO Michael Howland, who successfully fought to keep $1 million in local funding during Marion County’s 2004 budget crisis.

“It’s hard for any nonprofit organization when a significant government funding stream is cut,” he said. “We don’t really have a lot of choices. Most of us are running pretty close to the margin as it is. You can only cut expenses so much before you have to cut services.”

The obvious solution, then, is to boost revenue from other sources-something that’s much easier said than done.

“Most of us are already doing everything we can to increase private donations,” Howland said. “We can’t just fundraise harder. That’s not realistic. … It’s not something that happens overnight.”

Making a case

And finding additional support could be even more complicated for the customized employment effort, a collaboration of several organizations. The Indianapolis Private Industry Council is the fiscal agent for the grant, contracting the work out to Crossroads and Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana. The state Department of Workforce Development and Office of Vocational Rehabilitation also are involved-and are the most likely sources of additional public funding.

But lining up government support can be even more time-consuming-and uncertain-than finding donors, especially given the state’s switch to an outcomebased reimbursement system that took effect July 1. The implications of that change remain to be seen.

It’s no wonder, then, that program proponents are looking elsewhere for help. Crossroads, for example, is writing foundation grant proposals and exploring the possibility of reaching out to the corporate community.

Joanna Eyer, manager of employment programs at Crossroads, pointed to a Georgia retailer that donated $100,000 to help customized-employment startups there. Something like that could go a long way here, she said.

“Think about how many of these businesses that could start,” she said. “One of the biggest myths is that it costs a fortune to start a business. It doesn’t have to be a huge investment. We’re open to anything. We just want to keep this going.”

Indeed, the early success of businesses like Brody’s give organizers a reason to fight to preserve the program. Before customized employment, job coaches had few options for their disabled clients, Eyer and others said.

Adding self employment and resource ownership-where the worker supplies a tool or other product to the employer-opens up a range of other possibilities.

“It gives us the opportunity to look at more creative ways to get people employed,” said Crossroads’ Schnaith. “These folks might not do well in traditional jobs, but they do well with their own business. It builds their self esteem and helps them earn money-and pay taxes and contribute to society.”

Just such a spiel may be the key to winning support for the program. It’s fundraising common sense: Would-be funders want to know what good will come from their investment before they make it.

“You have to make an argument that [a program] really is worthwhile, that it has a direct impact on the community,” advised Peggy Frame, executive director of Indianapolis-based Training Inc., which in less than five years has ended a decadeslong dependence on government grants and contracts and boosted private contributions. “You have to make your case.”

Show, don’t tell

That’s where Ballard and Feldman come in.

The young men didn’t have many options when they left Indianapolis Public Schools’ Key Learning Academy. Because of their developmental disabilities, they got “certificates of completion,” rather than diplomas.

They’re friendly and hard working-and didn’t want to spend the rest of their lives punching a clock as department store greeters.

Ballard, 22, is an enterprising sort, selling stickers, tattoos and the like at the local skate parks he frequents; he also works at Key’s school bookstore. Feldman, 21, is more reserved but equally ambitious. He works at Very Special Arts of Indiana, making ceramics to sell at art fairs.

With the help of money from the customized employment grant, the pair bought an ice cream cart, filled it with Ritter’s Frozen Custard and other icy items and set up shop on the downtown canal, across from the paddleboat rentals.

Indianapolis-based Buggs Special Events, which coordinates canal vendors, helped them identify a product and they-and their job coaches-took it from there.

“It was a big success, wasn’t it?” Ballard asked rhetorically when recounting Brody’s July 4, 2005, opening, when 250 customers lined up to be cooled off.

“Everyone likes Ritter’s ice cream,” Feldman chimed in.

The pair split their days, each running a shift themselves, although family members often helped out. They saved enough of last year’s take to restock their inventory and pay for insurance and a business license.

This year, they’ve tweaked their hours to maximize peak canal traffic-Brody’s is open noon-8 p.m.-and borrowed a second cart so they can double their product selection and profits.

“It’s their business,” said mom Becky Feldman.

And they’re not alone.

The customized employment grant also helped east-side resident David Hankins buy the tools he needed to turn his woodworking hobby into Handy Hankins Woodart, despite the limitations imposed by cerebral palsy.

Bo Marcum likewise is grateful for the help he had launching his vending business. A 2003 graduate of the Indiana School for the Blind, he had worked in sheltered workshops, but didn’t see a future for himself there.

“It was OK. It was a job,” said Marcum, 25. “I was not a fan.”

But he had an acquaintance who owned some gumball-type vending machines around town, and he went along a few times to help refill them. Now Bo’s Vending has similar machines in 21 locations, selling everything from Hot Tamales to M&Ms.

And Marcum, who didn’t really want to live on his own when he graduated, is also thriving. He rides the bus from his apartment to hang out with friends and has big plans for his business.

“If I get going real good and heavy, I want to hire people to help me out,” he said. “I love it. I couldn’t ask for anything better. I like being my own man.”

Getting the customized employment program this far took an investment of time and money, proponents said, and keeping it going will require more of the same.

“It’s just really beginning to click,” said Steve Savage, a consultant to IPIC who is administering the grant. “Hopefully we’ll be able to find some funding to keep it going.”

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.