‘Abilimall’ offers  help with disabilities

Long before earning her doctorate from LSU in 2011, Jo Monroe received an education that helped shape her destiny.

When Monroe was a child in Hartsville, S.C., her mother, Frances, took her children and church groups to the Saleeby Center, a residential facility for those who had severe developmental disabilities. They would sing for the residents or, in the appropriate season, offer Christmas programs.

“Even though at the time we did not have a family member with a disability, Mom just always had a heart for it,” Monroe said. “I think it was probably the Lord’s way of preparing me.”

Now, Monroe has found a way to prepare others with disabilities.

Last year, Monroe opened the Frances Center for Customized Employment. To customers, it is a store filled with all manner of affordable items — hardly a unique strategy for helping groups facing difficult challenges. But that, Monroe says, misses the point.

The Frances Center prepares clients not to become employees, but to run their own businesses. Monroe hears people say that’s impossible. She says they’re wrong.

“Our goal here was not to run a thrift store,” Monroe said. “Our mission here is to train folks on how to work and how to find entrepreneurship and self-employment drives within themselves. Instead of being an outcome, this store is a process. It’s a byproduct of what we do.

“Even with all my instructors: Don’t let yourself get caught up with that being the focus of what we do. If the thrift store starts to get in the way of the education, it’s time to diminish what that thrift store does. The thrift store is simply there to show them this is a way you can make money.”

That is a significant problem for adults with disabilities. Job opportunities are limited, often to areas like fast food, landscaping and janitorial work. Tammy David, 21, who has a learning disability, is being trained how to groom pets at the Frances Center. She is one of the center’s 24 clients.

“I’ve tried to get to work with a veterinarian,” David said. “I’ve always loved animals. I always wanted to work with dogs or cats or horses. But they kept saying I needed to be 21. When I turned 21, I went over there to see and they said it was liability, that they would get sued if I would get hurt or something.”

Those who get jobs discover that they come with a cost.

“A lot of people don’t realize that … if they have (Supplemental Security Income) or disability, if they’re working a job, for every two dollars they make they lose a dollar off their SSI until it gradually diminishes,” Monroe said. “Self-employment is the only option the Social Security Administration gives us to accumulate personal wealth and not lose your SSI.”

When Monroe came to LSU in 2007 on a Huel Perkins Fellowship to pursue a doctorate in workforce education, she expected to continue a career spent mostly in teaching high school and agriculture. Monroe’s daughter, Ally, has autism, and Monroe enrolled her in the Greater Baton Rouge Hope Academy, which serves students with a wide range of learning challenges. Monroe realized that such an accepting environment wouldn’t last forever.

“It really began to open my eyes once we put her over at Hope Academy to where there’s going to have to be something beyond school,” she said. “For the first time, my eyes were opened to the ones that were exiting Hope, and we were, like, ‘Where are they going when they exit? What’s out there for them?’ The truth was there was not a lot being offered to them.”

An idea came. Having lived in the Carolinas, where flea markets are popular, Monroe began seeing how that kind of business could benefit those with disabilities. The products come in from donations — some of them in ready-to-sell condition, others that are repaired by the center’s clients.

The Frances Center provides academic classes in the morning, vocational and life skills classes in the afternoons. Barrett Murphy, a longtime former high school football coach, leads midday exercise sessions. The curriculum can lead clients to earn a National Career Ready Certificate.

Monroe hired Lisa Westerfield, whose daughter, Katie, 29, is a client with Down syndrome, to manage the store, which allows clients to have as much or as little interaction with customers as they want.

“Working self-employed allows them to have a bad day and have to stay home,” Monroe said. “I’ve got one client who is so Asperger’s that when he hears the chime on the front door, he’ll scoot back to the classroom and you’ll see him looking to see who it is. He doesn’t want to come out if it’s not somebody that he knows. Where else can he work at a place where he has that kind of freedom to literally duck and hide and say, ‘I don’t want to be out there’ in the public?”

“It allows Katie to be Katie,” Westerfield said.

Clients’ families pay a fee for the classes and for space in the shop, and Monroe hopes that the schooling will one day allow clients to pay for tuition with Pell Grants.

Monroe has coined a term — “abilimall,” which joins “ability” and “mall” — for the Frances Center. Monroe said the current location on a lightly traveled street has been an incubator that has allowed the concept to be tested. She is looking for a location that will be more visible to customers while retaining a secluded atmosphere for clients, and hopes the concept will spread to other cities.

Wherever the Frances Center is located, its mission will remain to give clients a future. The center accepts donations at its location at 14747 Terrell Road. Its website is http://www.francescenter.com.

“These folks, just because they have disabilities, they don’t have to stay poor,” she said. “They don’t have to stay part of the working poor. They can have things that build a nest egg for them.”