TRAVERSE CITY — Nick Lonsdale spent more than three years trying to find a job that fit him.
It wasn’t easy. Lonsdale, 27, has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair, so job options are limited. Most required too much mobility, and few offered social opportunities.
In 2010 Lonsdale picked up a part-time job at Paperworks Studio, a Traverse City paper-making and card-producing company that employs more than 20 disadvantaged, disabled people. He works on quality control and handles some public relations duties — speaking in the community about Paperworks’ specialty recycled cards.
The new job came with a new work family, with whom Lonsdale found acceptance, friends and confidence.
“These life skills for him are extremely beneficial to his well being,” said Lonsdale’s mother, Judy Manners. “Being able to accomplish all those things and going to workplace where he’s accepted, he can contribute and have a wonderful, beautiful outcome that has given him a sense of quality of life that you can’t put a price on.”
But an air of uncertainty surrounds Paperworks and its employees. Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan, Inc. runs the program but plans to cut ties. Paperworks’ supporters are hopeful they’ll survive, but the future is murky.
Goodwill is in talks with Grand Traverse Industries, a business that provides training and employment to people with disabilities, about taking over Paperworks’ operation.
If a deal with GTI doesn’t come to fruition, community members pledged to support the program, said Terry Berden, who chairs Paperworks’ advisory board and is a member of Goodwill’s board of directors.
Other members of the Paperworks family are torn between optimism and a nagging fear the program will fold.
Goodwill officials already asked Paperworks employees whether they would be interested in another job at Goodwill, some parents said.
“Nobody’s saying to me, ‘We’re solid, we’re going to be OK,’” said Gloria Taylor, mother and guardian of a Paperworks employee. “When somebody comes to talk to my daughter about working somewhere else, what does that tell me? Somebody’s giving up.”
Goodwill plans to keep Paperworks open at least through the busy winter holiday season. Details of a transition to another company haven’t yet been worked out, Berden said.
If the company changes management, there’s no status quo guarantee for Paperworks’ staff.
“How do they become that special part of the community again if they lose their status at Paperworks Studios?” Manners said.
Financial milestones not enough
Goodwill’s decision to sever its relationship with Paperworks surprised employees and their families, since it came on the heels of Paperworks’ best year.
“I just thought it was a joke at first, but when I went in the office everyone was so sad and thought the world was going to end,” Lonsdale said. “I don’t have very many concerns for me because I know I can usually find a volunteer job if I have to. What about all the people that can’t?”
Goodwill officials said they will help ousted employees if Paperworks closes.
“We’re trying to make a transition happen and we plan on working with people if it doesn’t and trying to find them suitable placements,” said Cecil McNally, the CEO of Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan.
Despite Paperworks’ various successes, including earning display space with retail giant Whole Foods and making as much money last month as in all of 2010, the company remains financially dependent on Goodwill, which spent nearly $1.1 million on the program in the past five years.
Goodwill’s contributions decreased over time; it totaled $168,000 last year and around $250,000 the year before, said Ruth Blick, Goodwill’s director of marketing and communications.
McNally said the nonprofit intends to route that and other money to an expanded job training program with an emphasis on jobs needed in the service industry, like retail, food service, janitorial and recycling.
“We’re spending a lot of time trying to run the business and we need to be focusing on the people and on helping the people and getting them trained and certified so that they can move on to other jobs,” McNally said.
But Manners said that’s not good enough for Paperworks’ employees.
“That’s great if you meet that criteria, but a lot of these folks aren’t going to be able to meet that criteria and be successful,” she said. “At Paperworks the management are trained professionals that can adapt a project for the individual and they’ll figure out different ways to help them be successful.”
Berden, though, is confident Paperworks will continue churning out its distinctive cards.
“There’s just been a whole bunch of time and energy spent getting it to where it needed to be for a transition,” said Berden. “Business-wise they make such beautiful cards. I and most people don’t want to see that go away. It’s a beautiful thing all the way around.”